There are various approaches to the translation of the Greek theos and Hebrew elohim or el that are translated as “God” in English. Click or tap here to see more.
While some of the main language groups of European languages have the origin of their translations go back to somewhat nebulous sources (see below), many other languages use a translation that can be more easily traced back to its original meaning.
Click or tap here to see the translations by many Germanic, Romance, or Slavic languages.
- Germanic languages use a term that goes back to the first Gothic Bible translation (guþ) in the 4th century that might originally have meant “divine entity summoned to a sacrifice” or “to pour, pour a libation” (source: Online Etymology Dictionary) (see: Afrikaans/Norwegian/Dutch/English: God; Danish/Swedish/Faroese: Gud; German: Gott; Icelandic: Guð; Yiddish: גאָט [got])
- Romance languages use a term that derives from the Latin Deus (and is unrelated to the Greek θεός) which itself comes from Proto-Indo-European deywós “sky, heaven” (source: Wiktionary) (see Catalan: Déu; French: Dieu; Galician/Portuguese: Deus; Italian: Dio; Spanish: Dios; Romanian: Dumnezeu [from: domine deus])
- Slavic languages use a term that comes from Proto-Slavic bogъ with the meaning of “poor, miserable,” as well as the later meaning “earthly wealth/well-being; fortune,” “dispenser of wealth/fortune” and finally “god” (source: Wiktionary) (see: Belarusian/Bulgarian/Macedonian/Russian/Serbian/Ukrainian: Бог; Bosnian/Croatian/Slovenian: Bog; Czech: Bůh; Slovak: Boh; Polish: Pan Bóg)
Eugene Nida (1947, p. 204ff.) provided a theoretical framework for ways to select a translation for “God.” (Click or tap here to see)
“The name for God in an aboriginal language is one of the keystones to the entire theological structure and Bible teaching. The problem is by no means as simple as it may at first appear. Some translators, not finding in the pagan religious system, exactly the word which they think appropriate, have introduced a foreign name for God, e.g. Spanish Dios or English God. They have thought that such a word would have prestige because it comes from the language of a culturally dominant group. The fact that such a borrowed word seems to have no bad connotations appears to justify its use. It is assumed that the native people will automatically come to understand by the borrowed word for ‘God’ exactly what we understand by the same term. The translator has counted upon taking a word with zero meaning and giving it the proper content. This is not so easily done as imagined. In almost every case the native will immediately try to equate this new name of God with one of the gods of his own religious system. Since all people attempt to understand the unknown in terms of the known, it will not be very long before the natives will have worked out what seems to them a perfectly consistent equivalent for the new term.
“On the other hand, the translator may attempt to use some native word for ‘God’ which seems applicable. A further investigation may reveal that there are many characteristics which are given to this god in native legend which are quite inconsistent with Biblical truth. The translator’s examination must be thorough, for he does not want to run the risk of using a term which does not contain at least the central core of meaning which is essential.
“The translator should not be fearful of using a native word for ‘God.’ He should remember that in terms of the native culture the Greek word theos, the Latin deus, and the Gothic guþ could hardly be termed exact equivalents to the concept of God as taught in the Bible. Nevertheless, these terms did possess the essential core of meaning. It is interesting to note that they are generic terms. In no case were they the names of one particular god. The use of names such as Zeus, Jupiter, or Woden would not have been wise, for these specific names included a great deal of legend as to the individual peculiarities, excesses, and immoral actions of the particular gods. In the generic terms, however, there existed enough of the fundamental core of religious significance that they have been used successfully. In Greek, theos designated any god. In the plural it could be used to include all the gods. In the Bible this generic term is used and made to apply specifically to only one God. The Christians took a term which designated any important supernatural entity and by context and teaching made it apply to only one such entity. Where this same situation exists in another culture, there is no reason for believing that this process could not be repeated, and with good results.
“In choosing the name for God it is important to consider the usage of the trade language. Very frequently the native church is assimilated into the church group speaking the trade language or the national language. The native church also draws much of its leadership from among those who speak the trade language. A similar name for God is valuable, but it is not absolutely essential.”
Following are examples of what Nida above considers “native words.” (Click or tap here to see)
Lakota: Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka (“the universal spiritual power” — source: Steve Berneking in Beerle-Moor / Voinov, p. 119 — click or tap here to see more)
“The Lakota translators have intentionally chosen to use the traditional Lakota name of the Deity instead of the name ‘God.’ Past missionary movements across North America have colonized Indian people to assume that the word ‘God’ is the appropriate gloss for traditional understandings of the Deity. Even more troubling, the waves of violence — physical, social, and psychological — were more often than not carried out in the name of ‘God.’ In an intentional strike against this violence (…) these Lakota translators are using the name Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka. Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka is the universal spiritual power, sometimes wrongly rendered in English ‘Creator’ or ‘Great Spirit.’ In Lakota spirituality, however, Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka is not personified with any name. What Christians would refer to as ‘God’ is understood as a spiritual force or energy that permeates all of creation and is manifest in numerous ways in the world around us at any given moment and in any given place. So, to assume that the name ‘God’ is an appropriate gloss to translate Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka fully and culturally not only reflects some latent ‘imperial’ attitude, it also negates and oppresses the deep understanding of Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka for the Lakota people. Therefore, the choice of the Lakota translators to bring Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka into the biblical text is an attempt to heal and to reconcile the brokenness in the history of their people.”
Ap Ma: Yamom (“the creator” — click or tap here to see more)
“Yamom is the creator. He made the trees and everything else we see in the world around us. There is no tradition as to where Yamom lives, and he is never seen. ‘We do not know him directly. We know only that he was in his own place and at his word everything was created. A person might sit somewhere and reflect, ‘How could such a thing as a coconut tree grow out of that nut?’ The answer is that these things that people could never do could only have been done by Yamom. Yamom is sometimes referred to as Yadima, which means ‘word’ or ‘story.’ It is a kind of euphemism so that one doesn’t have to say the real name. There is a feeling that if the name is used carelessly, the person may experience some kinds of problems. According to the traditional culture, Yamom himself never gave anyone direct messages. However, the konim ‘spirits,’ would sometimes mention him: ‘Yamom says the rains are coming,’ or ‘Yamom says the eels are coming.'”
Keapara: palagu (“God” or “spirit of humanness” — click or tap here to see more)
“Apart from the meaning ‘God,’ palagu is used in ordinary speech to mean something like ‘spirit of humanness.’ Each person is born with their own palagu, and this is what makes them able to become mature human beings. If the palagu leaves a person, then that person will begin to act in strange ways. In this way it is rather like the English word ‘mind.’ There is a special concern for babies, because the palagu of a baby is easily separated from the baby. When preparing to give a baby a bath, or if a person is carrying a baby under big trees, or at night, people are often encouraged to call out Kivani palaguna O, onove rake kaumai — ‘Baby’s spirit, come after us.’ If the baby’s palagu does not come, then the baby will become very fussy and difficult. The family must then try to figure out how to get the palagu to come back. Perhaps they will pray. There is often a feeling that something has gone wrong within the family, and this must be straightened out before the baby’s palagu will return.”
Mbandja: Chuchu (the traditional maker of world and mankind — click or tap here to see more)
“People claim that he made the world and mankind. What is more, he likes mankind. But his people did not like him. To escape from him, they ran away and have practically forgotten about him, though he has never forgotten about them. Here, embedded in the legends of the people, lies the truth which the missionary may use. He may show the people how far they have wandered from God and how He has not forgotten about them. In fact, He sent His Son in order that He might reconcile them to Himself.”
- Kovai: Yoba Maro (variant of Molo, a traditional cultural hero)
- Waskia: Kaem (general word for revered spirit)
- Misima-Panaeati: Yabowaine (traditional god who lives in the sky and helps with journeys or fights)
Zimakani: ‘Bi’bukia’mene (“True supernatural being” — source for this and above: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff. — click or tap here to see more)
In Zimakani there were supernatural beings called ‘bi’buki. The stars are among the ‘bi’buki, as are the sun and moon. Kau was the traditional god of the Zimakani, their ancestral folk hero. They would say Kau is our ‘bi’buki. Using this term as a base, a form ‘Bi’bukia’mene was developed. It means ‘The True (masculine, singular) ‘bi’buki‘ This is the term being used for ‘God.'”
Ajië: Bao (“a spirit,” “an ancestor,” or “a corpse” — source: Clifford, p. 79-91 — click or tap here to see more)
Maurice Leenhardt, the missionary and translator in charge of the first and only Ajië translation “believed at first that the Melanesian experience of Divinity could be brought directly over into Christianity. In 1905 he began experimenting with using bao (a spirit, an ancestor, or corpse) to clarify in the native language the ‘visions’ spoken of in the Gospels. (…) The Christian God had to appropriate the essence of Melanesian spirits by taking possession of their generic name, Bao. (…) [Leenhardt wrote to his father in 1913:] If Jehovah is really that which is visible since the creation then the pagans must have an obscure revelation of God at the heart of their beliefs. This is a minimum of experiences upon which the preaching of the Gospel can be based, And this we shouldn’t reject the entire jumble of their gods in order to give them a new god with a foreign name; rather we should search for the word in their language, even the strangest word, into which can be translated the visible experience of God. (…) The bao concept would have to be reunderstood, not as a generic term but capitalized, as a personal name. (…) Leenhardt was encouraged by his discovery that bao had always been a highly adaptable concept. It could apply not merely to a corpse, recent ancestor, or magical divinity, but its masculine ‘power’ could sometimes fuse spontaneously with feminine-totemic principle of life. (…) In adopting the language of totemic myth to evoke the Christian Bao (…) Leenhardt in effect broadened the God of European orthodoxy in two crucial ways. In translating his deity, the missionary made ‘Him’ more androgynous, a totem-bao of feminine ‘life’ as well as of masculine power.”
Ngäbere: Ngöbö (source: Nida 152, p. 37f. — click or tap here to see more)
Nida tells this story: “Frequently the translator is indebted to pagan shamans for some of the most important terms. For years Efrain Alphonse tried to find the Ngäbere name for ‘God.’ Many of the people did not know the word, and others refused to give it. Though there was a belief in a beneficent Creator, His name was too sacred to be known by the uninitiated. On one occasion, Mr. Alphonse went with some of his Ngäbe helpers to visit an old medicine woman back in the recesses of the tropical forest of Bocas del Toro. After being ushered into the presence of this greatly revered (…) woman, they answered at length the many questions she asked. Finally she began to chant and sing and as her voice rose higher and higher, she shouted out in trance-like ecstacy so that all could hear, ‘These men are talking about Ngöbö, the God of heaven and earth, Listen to them!’ There was the name ‘Ngöbö,’ the very word which Mr. Alphonse had been seeking for so many years. It came from the lips of a native diviner and sorceress, but all agreed that this was the name of God, and throughout the years it has been used by the Ngäbe Christians.”
Gbaya: sõ (originally: “to ooze; to anoint, to rub on” also “spirit” later “god” and finally a proper name for “God” — source: Noss, Current Tends 2002, p. 157ff. — click or tap here to see more)
“When the Gbaya translator of the Bible, like the Protestant and Catholic missionaries who first translated Scripture texts into Gbaya, adopts the traditional term for God, what does this mean theologically? The issue is not whether this term fits into the broad sweep of African Traditional Religion as it is referred to by modem African theologians, but what kind of God is this? The noun sõ may be derived from the verb so which means ‘to ooze; to anoint, to rub on.’ This term, which may have a basic meaning similar to ‘spirit,’ has come to be used as the equivalent of ‘god’ and as a proper name for ‘God.’ Folk etymology explains that this word depicts the unique power of God in that he created himself like sap oozing from the trunk of a tree. This God is the Creator God who created Adam and Eve and who also created the Gbaya ancestors. To the Gbaya this is YHWH of the Old Testament. (…) The theological implications of this practice are two-fold. First, the use of a vernacular term offers legitimacy to traditional beliefs. Secondly, there may appear to be a clash between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the translated text if the traditional term is retained (…) Lamin Sanneh observes two possible explanations with regard to this issue (1988:18). The first is that what any one language may say may not totally describe God; the second is that all languages may be inherently inadequate with regard to religious truth. Gbaya readers interpret the translated text in the light of tradition and transmitted knowledge. Adam and Eve are seen against the backdrop of the folklore heroes, Wanto and his wife Laaiso. Like Adam and Eve, Wanto and Laaiso are archetypes of humankind whose descendants pay the price of their misdeeds in those ancient times of the beginning. Just as Adam and Eve suffer the consequences of their deeds and are deprived of their pristine garden, so also Wanto and Laaiso lose the paradise that is created for them by an unknown benefactor of Gbaya myth.”
- Khmer: Preah Chea Mchas (“Illustrious one who is master” — “Because a concept for ‘God’ does not exist in Buddhism” (source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1996, 233ff.)
- Wayuu: Maleiwa (“Wayuus had automatically made the correspondence between the Christian God and their own Maleiwa. They considered them identical” — source: Nida 1947, p. 207)
Akan: Onyame or Onyankopon (“the supreme God” — source: J. Loewen in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 201ff. — click or tap here to see more)
“If we take an African example and consider the Akan of Ghana we see that they recognize Onyame or Onyankopon as the supreme God. Both of these names are personal and cannot be pluralized, but they also recognize the abosom, called idols or fetishes in the earlier dictionaries, but now called god/gods by Akan scholars. A is the prefix which pluralizes a root, bo means ‘stone’ or rock’ and som means ‘to worship.’ Thus the word as a whole literally means ‘rock things people worship.’ While the above example is from a single tribal society, the model it presents is duplicated in many, if not most West African societies. In such situations, the local word ‘gods’ will probably cover the domain of two Hebrew words gods and idols.”
- Northern Indian languages including Hindi, Nepali, Assamese, and Bengali use “Ishwar (Assamese: ঈশ্বৰ, Bengali: ঈশ্বর) or Param-Ishwar (“Supreme Ishwar”) (Hindi and Bengali: परमेश्वर). “This is a term used widely in Hindu scriptures in different senses. It is mainly used as a title, usually associated with the Hindu god ‘Siva.’ But there are passages in some scriptures where Ishwar is used as a name of a personal god who is the maker or master of the universe.”
- Southern Indian languages tend to use Deva, “another term tor a divine being. But this is not a personal name: it is a term to refer to any divine being, of which there are plenty in the Hindu pantheon. The term means ‘respectable or glorious being,’ so it has a positive sense.” Languages include Gujarati: દેવ, Kannada: ದೇವರ, Marathi: देव, Malayalam: ദൈവം, Tamil தேவன், Telugu దేవుడు (source for this and above: B. Rai in The Bible Translator 1992, p. 443ff. and Hooper, p. 86f.). This term is also used in some Indonesian languages: Sangir and Batak Toba: Debata (source: Rosin, p. 200)
- Many Bantu languages use Mungu (or a form thereof), the “traditional creator and sustainer of the world and of all life in it,” including Swahili, Nyanja, Digo, Bena, Pokomo, Gogo, Pogolo, Sanga, Rundi, Kinyarwanda, Bemba, Chuwabu, Ngungwel (sources: Bühlmann, p. 146 and E. Wendland in The Bible Translator 1992, p. 430ff.)
Most Polynesian languages use Atua, the traditional concept for “spirit” or “god,” including Gilbertese, Māori, Tuvalu, Rarotongan, Tahitian, Samoan (Atua), Rotuman (‘Ạitu), or Tonga (‘Otuá) (Source J. Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329ff.; click or tap here to see more)
“The word is Polynesian, although it has long been used in parts of Melanesia too. In Polynesia, it originally had various meanings, many of which were very distant from the Christian meaning. In the first place there are countless atuas, while the Christian God is one only, even though He be a Trinity in Unity — and that difficulty would have to be faced later. But at bottom an atua is only a spirit, not necessarily masculine, or good or powerful, and certainly a very poor foundation for conveying the Christian concept of God. The term atua is applied to gods possessing personal names, as well as to ancestral spirits and even to dead chiefs. In many ways its coverage corresponds to that of kami in Japanese. In Samoa one could even speak of an atua of war, thunder, etc. Yet this term atua has been employed everywhere in Polynesia by all the missions, from the first efforts of the London Missionary Society up to the present time.” (Source: A. Capell in The Bible Translator 1969, 154ff.
Adoptions of terms from other languages
Translations of God with loan words (what Nida above styles as “introduction of a foreign name for God”) include the following. (Click or tap here to see)
The term used for God is Allah or some variation of this word in most predominantly Muslim regions in the Middle East (Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Dari, etc.), but also in other Muslim parts of the world as a loan word from Arabic, including in Wolof (Yàlla), Kpelle (Ɣâla), Hausa and Pulaar (Allah), Malay and Indonesian (Allah — depending on the version sometimes for YHWH and in exchange with Tuhan — see Atua above — click or tap here to see more)
Reasons for using Allah include that “the loan word Allah is the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew names of God El, Elohim, Eloah in the Hebrew Old Testament;” that “Arab Christians from before the dawn of Islam have been praying to Allah, and Allah was used by Christian theologians writing in Arabic. So the Christian usage of Allah is actually older than Islam;” “Allah is the word used for ‘God’ in all Arabic versions of the Bible;” “Christians in countries like Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and other places in Asia and Africa where the languages are in contact with Arabic, have almost all been using the word Allah as the Creator God and the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Source: D. Soesilo in The Bible Translator 2001: p. 414ff., reproduced online here.)
- A number of languages in predominantly Spanish-speaking areas are using forms of Spanish Dios, including Tojolabal (Dyosi), Poqomchi’ (Tiox), Chol (Dios), Quetzaltepec Mixe (Tios), Kekchí, K’iche’ (all: Dios) (Source: Robert Bascom)
- A number of languages in Papua New Guinea use the English “God” and the German “Gott” (dating back to the German occupation of PNG in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), including Tok Pisin / Waboda / Mussau-Emira: God, West Kewa: Gote, Goto, Onobasulu: Gode, Bamu: Godi, Yagaria (Source: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.)
The traditional Kâte term Anutu was adopted by a number of other languages in Papua New Guinea: Adzera: Anutu; Dedua: Anutu; Nukna: Ánutu — source: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.) — click or tap here to see more)
“‘Anutu’ — despite his apparent insignificance in the mythological system — could not be placated by humans. ….Thus, although the … name Anutu had several variations and was understood in several ways, it was apparently for the Kâte people, living in the cradle of the Lutheran Mission, the most acceptable translation for ‘the Lord’ or ‘God.’ (…) Kâte was selected by the early Lutheran missionaries working in the area to serve as a church lingua franca. As the Lutheran church spread through the Finisterre Mountains and on into the Highlands, the Kâte language went along. God therefore became known in all of these areas as Anutu. In areas where the Lutherans remain strong, the name Anutu tends to be used even today. In other areas, such as among the Melpa speakers around Mount Hagen, many Lutherans continue to use Anutu, but this name has not been acceptable to Christians of other denominations. On the other hand, Anutu is still used in the Baiyer River area, north of Mount Hagen, even though most Christians in the area are now Baptist rather than Lutheran.”
Translations of Attributes of God for a translation of “God”
A translation principle not described by Nida is the translation of “God” with descriptive terms. Following are some examples. (Click or tap here to see)
- Mazahua: “the Great Spirit”
- Navajo: “the Eternal Spirit” (Navajo also uses the English borrowing “God” in the combination Diyin God: “Holy God”)
- San Blas Kuna: “the Great Father”
- Kipsigis: Jehoba (“the great ruler” — which accidentally resembles Jehovah)
- Northwestern Dinka: Nhialich (“one in the above”) (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida 1961)
- Banaro: Nor Mik (“the Great Father”)
- Imbongu: Gote Pulu iye (lit. “root man”); Ola iye (lit. “above man”)
- Gwahatike: baraŋ al (“creator”); tikula al (“creator”)
- Bola: Vuri (“super being”)
- Guhu-Samane: Ohonga (“Someone who is permanently sitting on a chair. The word for ‘king’ is derived from the same word.” — source for this above: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.)
- Aja: Mawu (“there is nothing greater”) (source: Joshua Ham)
Translations of “God” in maturing contexts
In some cases it took failed attempts before finding the “right” translation for “God.” (Click or tap here to see)
“When the first missionaries, teachers, and catechists came to the Huli country in the 1950s, they may have done some investigation of the Huli worldview before they began to preach.
“But they apparently did not find any obvious local word for ‘God,’ and they began teaching the people about ‘Ngode,’ a Huli-ized form of the English name. In recent years some Huli people have suggested that in fact the Huli did have their own name for God: ‘Datagaliwabe.’
“This led the missionaries of both the Evangelical Church of Papua and of the Roman Catholic Church to investigate the matter more carefully. It soon became clear that there was a traditional figure with the name Datagaliwabe who was still talked about by the Huli people.
“According to traditional Huli belief, Datagaliwabe lives up above the clouds in a place called Dahuliya andaga. This is in fact the term which has been used to translate ‘heaven’ in the Huli Bible. Datagaliwabe is very concerned about how people act. People know what is right, but they often act in ways that they know are not right. When they do this, Datagaliwabe may punish them. He is able to know what people are doing wherever they are. It is not possible to hide one’s actions from him or to deceive him. If a person wants to get away from one of the evil spirits, one can always run away to another area. One cannot run away from Datagaliwabe.
Before Huli people became Christian, they were very much afraid of powerful spirits who could do much to harm them, such as causing sickness. It was important to make offerings to appease these spirits and to keep them on one’s good side.
Datagaliwabe was not like these evil spirits who had to be ‘paid’ in order to get their help. One never made offerings to him. Therefore he must be God.
“In times of sickness or trouble, people would sometimes call out, ‘Father Datagaliwabe, help me.’ All of these traditional beliefs certainly supported the possible connection of Datagaliwabe with God. On the other hand, there was at least one problem. For the Huli, Datagaliwabe was not the creator. The old Huli stories said that it was the Sun (Ni) who created the world. This seemed to be a relatively small point that could easily be dealt with. The most serious problem seemed in fact to be that Christians were used to calling God Ngode.
“Would they be willing to change? The translation of the Old Testament was in process while this investigation was going on, so the matter was discussed in detail by the checking team, which included representatives of almost all of the major churches working in the area. Most of the group felt that it was willing to give Datagaliwabe a chance. As books were being completed, it was the policy of the team to publish trial editions. So for several years an experiment was conducted, using both Ngode and Datagaliwabe together in the text. Readers were told that they were not supposed to read both names, but to choose whichever one they preferred.
“In the meantime, a more serious problem surfaced. Representatives from one of the churches on the edge of the language argued that in their area Datagaliwabe has other characteristics different from those described above, which make it inappropriate to use this name as a name for God. As the time for publication of the Bible neared, it was clearly necessary to make a choice. At first, different churches made different choices, and it looked as though the Bible Society might be put in the unhappy position of having to publish separate editions with different names for God. However, as the Huli people thought about the implications of this decision, they themselves realized that some other solution must be found. Representatives from the different churches were invited to another series of meetings, where they were apparently convinced of the importance of finding a single solution that everyone could accept.
“The eventual decision was to continue the practice of the various trial editions, printing both names together in the text, as ‘Ngode Datagaliwabe.'”
“Missionaries working in the Pawaia language reported that the local people had originally been using the word “Got.” However, this name had been confused by the people with “an unsavory character in a legend.” Because of this the missionaries decided to try an expression meaning “The Powerful One.” They say that the term chosen has been accepted by the people.” (Source for this and above: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.)
The Chinese and the Korean “Term Question”
The translation of the Greek theos and the Hebrew elohim (or in the case of early Catholics, the Latin deus) into Chinese was easily the most passionately discussed translation in the history of Bible translation. (Click or tap here to see)
Jesuit missionaries that had come to China in the late 16th century had to find a Chinese term for “God.” An early Chinese term for “God” was dousi 陡斯, a mere transliteration of the Latin deus, but from 1583 on tianzhu — “Lord of Heaven” — was used. It was seen to be of no or little previous religious coinage. Very soon, though, the leader of the Jesuit mission Matteo Ricci, embraced the terms tian 天 — “heaven” — and shangdi 上帝 he had found the Christian God in Chinese literature. After Ricci’s death this caused conflict in the Catholic mission, because Franciscan and Dominican missionaries understood these terms as too pre-occupied by Chinese notions of religion. The question was eventually brought to Rome during the 1630s. In 1705 and again in 1742 the Vatican forbade the use of these terms. The whole episode is known as one part of the “Question of Rites.” The Catholic church in China today still employs tianzhu 天主for the translation of “God,” clearly shown in the Chinese term for “Catholicism” — tianzhujiao 天主教.
Protestants who arrived much later started to have a similar argument in in 1847, when missionaries of various nationalities and Protestant denominations attempted to have a common Bible version for China. This lead to the greatest controversy of the Protestant mission in China, the “Term Question.”
For them, the most important terms in question were shen 神 and shangdi 上帝.
“The side supporting shen held that it was the only true translation for the biblical ‘God,’ even though it never had had this meaning historically because of the absence of a Chinese monotheistic faith. However, it was comparable to the Greek θεός and the Latin deus in its being a generic term describing the highest class of Chinese gods, including shangdi. This also made it possible to use this term in the plural. For these reasons, shen was held to be the term which could best be adapted to the meaning of the Christian God. Shangdi, on the other hand, was understood as a name rather than a generic term, which could not be used in the plural.
“The other side maintained that the Christian God had revealed himself in ancient China, especially during the time of the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1122-255 BC). Belief in him had been set forth even in the Confucian classics, where shangdi was described as the highest deity. Shangdi was regarded in Chinese mythology as the creator of all things, including shen, which in most cases meant ‘spirit’ and in only very rare cases ‘deity,’ although it was used for ‘false gods.’ Shen could not be used for ‘God’ but only for another person of the Trinity, namely the ‘Spirit.’ This final point complicated the matter immensely, and made a compromise much more difficult because the shen advocates had determined ling 灵 to be the right term for Spirit.’
“These few examples only touch the surface of the numerous arguments that were raised from either side. The reasons behind the arguments were of an ideological nature and basic for the understanding of mission work in China. Those who argued for shen were convinced that the Chinese had never known the Christian God, and had therefore no equivalent term to describe him; they believed, however, that shen could grow into a suitable term. The other side represented an Old Testament belief that God had revealed himself even in China, and had been to some extent known throughout Chinese history. They believed that it was only necessary to ‘reawaken’ the Chinese knowledge of Christianity, whereas the other side had to introduce a whole new concept. In addition, the conflict often also had the appearance of a national struggle, because to a high degree the lines were drawn between British (and German) (pro-shangdi) and American missionaries (pro-shen).
“This conflict resulted in various editions of Bibles being published by the different sides with their respective preferred terminology. A modern analysis of the conflict even reveals a positive aspect of the use of two terms. According to at least one view, one of the terms represents a concept of divine immanence (shen), while the other one represents transcendence (shangdi) which gives the Chinese church an advantage that other churches don’t have.
“The same kind of pragmatism can be found in the fact that the (one character term) shen is typically preceded by a ‘reverential’ space which allowed the printing plates to be used twice by accommodating the (two character term shangdi.” (Source: Zetzsche 1999, p. 83f., 90, 275).
While the Korean translation of God did not develop into as full-blown a conflict as the one in China, it’s still interesting to follow. (Click or tap here to see)
The Protestant translation of elohim and theos in Korean is ha-na-nim 하나님, the supreme deity revered and worshiped by most of the Korean people even when their national religions were Confucianism, Buddhism, or Taoism.” (Source: Min Suk Kee in The Bible Translator 2013, p. 332ff.)
According to Ahn (2011, p. iif.) there “was a significant theological continuity between the Chinese and Korean Term Questions. The Term Question in both China and Korea proceeded on a similar pattern; it was a terminological controversy between an indigenous theistic term (Chinese Shangdi and Korean Ha-na-nim) on the one hand and a neologism (Chinese Tianzhu and the corresponding Korean Ch’on-zhu) or a generic term (Chinese Shen and the corresponding Korean Shin) on the other hand. Central to both Term Questions was the theological issue of whether a primitive monotheism, congruent with Christian belief, had existed among the Chinese and Koreans. It will suggest that whilst those who adhered to a degeneration theory of the history of religions used either Shangti or Ha-na-nim as the name of the God of the Bible, those who rejected the existence of primitive monotheism preferred to use the neologism or the generic term.
“[However], a significant divergence between the Term Question in China and that in Korea. Whereas the Term Question in China became polarized for over three centuries between two equal and opposite parties — between the Jesuits (Shangdi) and the Dominicans-Franciscans (Tianzhu), and later between the Shangdi party and the Shen party in Protestant missions, in Korea it was a short-term argument for three decades between a vast majority (of the Ha-na-nim party) and a small minority (the opponents of Ha-na-nim). (…) The disproportion in Korea in favor of Ha-na-nim was due to the much closer analogy between Ha-na-nim and the Christian trinity, as seen in the Dan-Gun myth [of Ha-na-nim sending his son to earth], than was the case with Shangdi in Chinese religion. For this reason, the thesis concludes by suggesting that the adoption of the indigenous monotheistic term, Ha-na-nim, in a Christian form contributed to the higher rate of growth of the Korean church compared to that of the church in China.”
Kee agrees: “(…) Such a rapid growth of Christianity in Korea should be ascribed to ha-na-nim, the indigenous god deeply rooted and long revered in the hearts of Koreans. Surely, as some evangelists have claimed, the Israelite god was incarnated as ha-na-nim in Korea. Or, to put it the other way round, ‘ha-na-nim was baptized to be born again,’ as Sung Deuk Ok has wittily observed.”
The popularity of ha-na-nim is maybe even more surprising since, unlike the similar Catholic term ha-neu-nim 하느님 for God, it is ungrammatical in Korean. Kee says:
“Reviewing the history of the survival of the name is truly intriguing. We may enjoy the irony which is evident when a logical absurdity no longer matters in the face of purely practical considerations. Ha-na-nim is composed of ha-na and nim. While the latter means ‘dear one’ or ‘lord,’ the tricky problem lies with the first part, ha-na. The earliest form of this is ha-nă or ha-nal meaning ‘heaven,’ which orthographically developed into both ha-nal and ha-neul. When the suffix nim is added, they are spelled, respectively, ha-na-nim (하나님) and ha-neu-nim (하느님), with the phoneme /l/ (ㄹ) omitted, as is common in Korean orthography. Though both mean the same, ‘heavenly lord,’ ha-na-nim was much preferred to ha-neu-nim. This is partly due to a wordplay on ha-na. While it is a shortened form of ha-năl (“heaven”), ha-na by itself, independent of ha-năl, signifies the number ‘one.’ Consequently ha-na-nim, regardless of its original meaning ‘heavenly lord,’ sounds like a proud reference to ‘One Lord.’
“Could the spelling ha-neu-nim possibly challenge ha-na-nim again in the future? I would answer that this is very unlikely and unnecessary. The name ha-na-nim may be absurd, but ironically its inherent weakness may turn to great advantage in situations where it is challenged. The proud oneness of the Christian God implied and applied in the name must be left untouched.”
For further reading on the translation of “God,” see Rosin 1956.