What is the place of ’emotion’ in the Christian life?

pulpit

I’ve recently been diagnosed with depression. So I’ve been pretty man down lately. I have started on a dose of anti-depressants, and they’re slowly kicking into my system. As I was on my way up I was hit by a solid bout of flu. As much as flu sucks, I honestly quite enjoy the time in bed to sleep, read and think.

During this time I started reading a book called ‘Feel‘. In it Matthew Elliott argues that if we downplay emotions in the Christian life, we distance an important, God-given part of ourselves.

Here’s the description from the Amazon page:

“In Feel, Matthew Elliott takes a critical look at what our culture and many churches have taught about controlling and ignoring our emotions. He contends that some of the great thinkers of the modern era got it all wrong, and that the Bible teaches that God intends for us to live in and through our emotions. Emotions are good things that God created us to feel. Matthew helps us to understand our emotions and equips us to nurture healthy feelings and reject destructive ones. So refresh yourself, drink deeply, and learn to live with a new, passionate heart”.

pulpit I’ll be honest, after reading the subtitle (“The power of listening to your heart”) my sensors were tingling a little. But, surprisingly, it was brilliant! It gripped my heart and sent my mind all over the place as I thought about whether it clashes with anything in my theology. I think the best part was that it got me to read the Bible and pray with a new air of excitement.

Has anyone who checks in here read it? If you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. I’m convinced by his argument, and think he highlights something important which is downplayed or, at least, overlooked in most reformed circles. It has given me something to chew on as I think about how to approach my pretty significant emotional. So I’m looking for an opportunity to chat about some of the ideas he raises.

I realise that most of you won’t have read it though. Obviously I recommend you give it a read. But most of you won’t have the time for that. So, because I would still like you to get involved, I have made a plan for you. I have made something of a summary. Give that a read, and then let me know your thoughts below.

P.S. I’ve also been thinking about posting something longer on godliness, friendship and intimacy. So keep an eye out for that too.

An Analysis of and Response to Stott’s Understanding of 1 Timothy 2:9-15

1. Introduction.

John Stott

The question of how God has designed us, as gendered beings, is a prominent one within the mind of the modern Christian. [Note]  In light of its impact on our view of ourselves and God, [Note] a biblical understanding of gender issues is of utmost importance within the evangelical church today.

John Stott is one influential evangelical leader who has attempted to provide an answer to this question. This answer is expressed, in part, in his exegetical comments on 1 Timothy 2:9-15; and so it is these remarks which we shall consider. Yet, since his understanding of these verses is so largely determined by the concept ‘cultural transposition’, we will begin by considering how he defines this term.

2. What John Stott means by the phrase ‘cultural transposition’.

Stott (1996) asserts that “Scripture is an amalgam of … eternal truth which transcends culture and its transient cultural presentation. The former is universal and normative; the latter is local and changeable”. This is his basis for ‘cultural transposition’. As can be seen, it calls for that which transcends culture, in the Bible, to be held universally, while that which is transient to be transposed into contemporary culture. Adopting this hermeneutic, he suggests, will allow us to avoid the two opposite errors of, firstly, lifting up the cultural expression to the level of essential revelation (and thereby establishing both types as absolute) and, secondly, bringing down the essential revelation to the level of cultural expression (and thereby establishing both types as subjective). [Note]

2.1. Expression within 1 Timothy 2:9-15.

When it comes to 1 Timothy 2:9-15 John Stott suggests that we see two instances where ‘cultural transposition’ needs to be applied.

The first is found in verses 9-10. Here he tells us that we see the essential revelation being that “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control” (1 Timothy 2:9, ESV). Yet, Paul’s commands regarding their clothing, hairstyle and jewellery must be transposed into relevance for our culture.

The second instance is found in verses 11-15. He suggests that we see here two antitheses within the text; one being between submission and authority, the other between silence and teaching. He (Stott, 1996) then encourages us to see “the submission–authority antithesis as permanent and universal (because grounded in creation, see verse 13)” while seeing the “silence–teaching antithesis as a first-century cultural expression of it, which is therefore not necessarily applicable to every culture, but open to transposition in each” (Stott, 1996).

3. Evaluation of Stott’s interpretation and application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15.

3.1. Stott’s hermeneutical principles.

Since Stott’s approach is governed throughout by this specific hermeneutic (cultural transposition), one needs to begin by evaluating it. So the question needs to be posed, “Is cultural transposition the best interpretative approach for these verses?”

The initial concern of any reader will be that there is no inherent distinction between the cultural and normative within the text. Stott (1996) dismisses this view as being naïve. <span title="He does so by saying that since most of the New Testament is addressed to specific situations if we lose the distinction between what is local and what is universal we will have to interpret everything as being either only locally applicable or only universally applicable. In light of the wisdom literature of the Bible, this response is legitimate. God never claims to speak into a static world, or a world devoid of differing cultures and worldviews. Rather, he always speaks to the world in the state and place it is in. This results in God applying truths differently in different situations.”>[Note] Yet, in his response, he does not provide a way to distinguish between the cultural and the normative. This is a problem as, without this ability, one can easily stray into subjective decisions about what is universal and what is cultural. This is worth bearing in mind as we continue.

Notwithstanding the above, Stott’s argument for this approach to 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is strengthened by his finding of two other cases for cultural transposition in 1 Timothy 2:8-10. Stott argues that these cases should at least make us open to the possibility that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is a case for cultural transposition.

Yet, notice that at no point does Stott suggest a reason for why these three instances are necessarily bound together. Furthermore, at no point does he acknowledge that it is not necessarily the case that verses 11-15 take the same form as verses 8-10. Therefore, although one may see legitimacy to the method, one need not feel that they necessarily have to adopt it as the interpretative method for these verses. [Note]

3.2. The meaning of “I do not permit” (1 Timothy 2:12).

Stott clearly sees these words as an authoritative command by the apostle. He (Stott, 1996) links this use of ‘permit’ to that of the parallel passage in 1 Corinthians where “Paul identifies his permission as both the teaching of ‘the Law’ and ‘the Lord’s command’”. Thus Stott argues that this permission is more than Paul’s personal opinion, and so he is not willing to allow us to limit their application. [Note] Rather he suggests that we take seriously that Paul does “not permit” (1 Tim. 2:12, ESV) what follows.

Beyond this observation, Stott takes their meaning as self-evident and instead deals generally with verses 11-12. [Note] As a result, we cannot directly examine his understanding of their meaning, but will have to infer something of the shape of his understanding from what he says about the verses in their entirety. So what does Stott say regarding 1 Timothy 2:11-12?

Stott asserts that there are two antithetical instructions to women. He (Stott, 1996) expresses the double antithesis in this way, “[A] woman’s behaviour in public worship is to be characterised by quietness and/or silence, not teaching, and by submission, not authority”. Yet he does not hold these antithetical statements as being equally normative. Rather, for reasons given above, he sees the positive statement, “Let a woman learn” (1 Tim. 2:11, ASV), as being linked to a clause with universal reach; while seeing the negative statement, “I do not allow” (1 Tim. 2:12, NET), as being linked to a clause which is a cultural application of the previous universal imperative, and is therefore open to transposition. [Note]

In seems clear, therefore, that Stott sees these words as a command (as opposed to a concession), which carries apostolic authority (rather than personal opinion), and was applicable culturally (rather than universally). One must heartily agree with the first two statements, while the latter must be examined further.

3.3 The meaning of the words “teach” and “have authority” (1 Timothy 2:12).

Stott (1996) emphasises that we should begin our analysis of these verses “by affirming… that a woman’s ‘submission’ to male ‘authority’ is in God’s purpose normative”. He points us to 1 Corinthians 11:2ff for the strongest biblical justification for this view. [Note] In light of this he says that the call for women’s submission to men is what is universal here.

This leads him to conclude, because of ‘cultural transposition’, that being silent in church, as opposed to teaching, was the cultural application of this universal principle. As an explanation, Stott (1996) says that “silence is not an essential ingredient of submission…. Similarly, women teaching men does not necessarily symbolize taking authority over them”.

That raises the question of how authority is exercised in the local church, for that is where Paul’s commands are concentrated in 1 Timothy 2. This is a crucial question, which once decided will determine whether Stott’s position is valid, or needs to be reconsidered. In an attempt to provide an answer to a similar question, Moo (1991: 186) says, “[The] activity of teaching, precisely because it does come to God’s people with the authority of God and His Words, is authoritative”. [Note]

Stott, of course, does not feel it appropriate to speak of the authority of elders. To defend this view, he appeals to Jesus’ words in Mark 10, where Jesus compares the world, whose “officials exercise authority over them” (Mark 10:42), with the church, where “greatness would be measured by service” (Mark 10:43).

This, however, is an inadequate position. For if we extend our consideration to the beginning of Jesus’ statement in Mark 10:42 [Note] it becomes clear that Jesus is not comparing the existence of leadership within the two communities, but the manner in which that leadership is exercised. Therefore his (Stott, 1996) assertion that “there are now no authority figures in the church,… all Christian teachers are called to teach humbly under [the New Testament’s] authority” must be rejected.

Yet, we need to be clear that once this view of Stott’s is undermined, he can no longer use ‘cultural transposition’ as a means to understand this passage. The reason for this is that he can no longer hold to ‘having authority’ as being the eternal principle, and to ‘teaching’ as a cultural application. Instead he will have to lift ‘teaching’ into the category of eternal principle, which in turn will make both the ‘teaching’ and the ‘having authority’ universally applicable. While this does not suit Stott’s view, it seems that seeing both commands within this category is the most faithful approach to verse 12.

3.4. The reason for the references to Adam and Eve (1 Timothy 2:13-14).

Stott’s (1996) basic understanding here is that, “as the conjunction ‘for’ implies” these references to Adam and Eve provide a biblical basis for the male authority that Paul has presented in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Paul, Stott argues, presents this biblical basis as being firstly established by creation and then by the fall.

Firstly, Stott looks at verse 13 [Note] and sees primogeniture as the basis for Adam’s authority. He (Stott, 1996) suggests that “the priority of Adam’s creation is perfectly reasonable when seen in the light of … the legal rights and privileges accorded to the firstborn”. So male headship was established by the priority of Adam.

Secondly, Stott looks at verse 14 [Note] and sees Eve’s transgression in Genesis 3 as being a rebellion against an implicit authority structure. This, he argues, points to another basis for male headship. [Note]

This is a fairly standard treatment, which is supported by many other scholars (such as Moo, 1991: 190; and Carson, 2009). In light of this fact, and due to space restrictions, we shall unfortunately do no more than affirm the position Stott adopts. [Note]

3.5. The bearing of 1 Timothy 2:15 on 1 Timothy 2:12.

Stott understands 1 Timothy 2:15 to be referring to the birth of Christ. Therefore he opts for the NEB translation of this verse, which has the rendering, “[women] will be saved through the Birth of the Child”. Stott (1996) sees this link as being a development of the previous verses for since Paul has already recalled Genesis chapter 2 and 3, and so “a further reference to the coming redemption through the woman’s seed, recalling Genesis 3:15, would be most apt”. [Note]

While this view is not impossible, it is unlikely. Paul’s reference to ‘childbirth’, or ‘bearing of children’, does not naturally lead us to consider the birth of Jesus. [Note] Rather, it leads us to think in general terms of bearing children. Moo (1991: 192) defends this position by informing us that “The verbal form of this word… is used in 1 Timothy 5:14 … to denote bearing or raising children generally, and this is the meaning we would expect it to have in 2:15 also”. This seems to be correct.

It is more realistic to see this, alongside Philippians 2:12, as being a call for women to work out their own salvation. Grudem (2004:73-74) takes the reference to childbearing as a synecdoche for the specific tasks and roles which women are called to, by God, in totality. [Note] One who adopts this view would opt for a translation of them like the ESV, which says “[She] will be saved through childbearing”.

The reason for this understanding being more likely is that it seems to most naturally fit with Paul’s logic. Paul, in verses 11-15, is presenting an argument. In each clause he is developing it. So Paul begins by saying that in the local church he does not permit women to teach or have authority over men. He then moves to saying that this is because of the order instituted in creation, and seen rebelled against to bring the fall. Finally, he argues that, instead of trying to attain what is inappropriate, women should work out their salvation by trying to attain what they are called to by God. It is in this line of thinking that the remainder of verse 15 (ESV) makes the most sense: “if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control”.

4. Outline of suggested understanding of what 1 Timothy 2:9-15 means for the church today.

Assuming the above to be the logic of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and incorporating into that our understanding of 1 Timothy 2:9-10 discussed earlier, we may say generally that Paul is calling the local church to act in light of the ransom and the revelation they have received (1 Tim 2:6). Specifically this means, on the one hand, that women should dress modestly (1 Tim. 2:9-10) – and remove anything which stands in the way of doing that. On the other hand, however, it means that we should live in line with the way God has made us as gendered beings. In light of creation, and the fall, this will mean that men adopt the serious responsibility God has called them to (which is leading the local church, [Note]) and it will mean that woman adopt the serious responsibility of living in line with what God has called them to (which is childbearing. [Note])

Yet the principle behind verses 11-15 calls us to say that both genders need to live in line with how God has designed us. So if a either gender, in the local church, rebels against this call, then that gender needs to be called to repentance. [Note] Thus it is not only the women, in the church, who need to be called to the obedience of these scriptures; as if the men could keep living in rebellion. In fact, in South African churches, there is a great ignorance, among men, of what it means to lead; this passage calls for that to be corrected.

5. Conclusion.

Our examination of John Stott’s approach to these verses has shown us that ‘cultural transposition’ is not the most helpful interpretative method to adopt when seeking to understand 1 Timothy 2:9-15. While the method helped at certain points it ultimately failed because the silence-teaching antithesis, which Stott attempted to make cultural, resisted his efforts and was established as being a universal principle. We have therefore seen that Paul is developing a specific argument in these verses; namely that God designed each gender, at creation, to operate in a certain manner, within an ordered structure, and that structure must be expressed in the local church. Since the women were rebelling against this structure, he establishes that they must not seek what is inappropriate for them (to teach and have authority over men), but must instead seek what they are called to.

Bibliography

  • CALVIN, J. 2008. Institutes of the Christian religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
  • CARSON, D.A. 2009. D. A. Carson on 1 Timothy 2 “Authority”. Date of Access: 30 August 2010.
  • CARSON, D.A. 2009. D. A. Carson on 1 Timothy 2 “Permit”. Date of Access: 30 August 2010.
  • CARSON, D.A. 2009. The Flow of Thought in 1 Timothy 2. (Paper delivered as part of the Different By Design Conference.) Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Unpublished.)
  • DEYOUNG, K. 2010. Go Big or Go Home: Why Complemegalitarian Doesn’t Work (1). Date of access: 30 August 2010
  • GRUDEM, W. 2004. Evangelical feminism & biblical truth: an analysis of 118 disputed questions. Leicester, England : Inter-Varsity Press.
  • KOSTENBERGER, A.J., SCHREINER, T.R., BALDWIN, H.S., eds. 1997. Women in the church: a fresh analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15. Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Books.
  • LEA, T.D. & GRIFFIN, H.P. 1992. The new American commentary: volume 34; 1,2 Timothy Titus. Nashville, TN : Broadman Press.
  • MOO, D. 1991. What does it mean not to teach or have authority over men? 1 Timothy 2:11-15.  (In PIPER, J. & GRUDEM, W., eds. Recovering biblical manhood and womanhood: a response to evangelical feminism. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books).
  • STOTT, J.R.W. 1996. The message of 1 Timothy and Titus: the life of the local church. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press. Available: Logos.
  • WRIGHT, N.T. 2004. Paul for everyone: the pastoral letters; 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Louisville, KY : Westminster John Knox Press.

How do African concepts of God relate to the God of the Bible?

A.W. Tozer (1994:11) famously suggests that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us”. I believe this assertion to be correct and so the question, “How do African concepts of God relate to the God of the Bible?” is most worthy of our consideration. In attempting to answer this question we will examine their similarities and differences, and then we will consider whether African concepts of God¹ are more similar or dissimilar to the God of the Bible.

At the outset I need to say that one of the major problems in a study such as this is its vastness. Attempting to distill the religious beliefs of about 1 billion people is no small task; especially when these people are at no point static in their beliefs. Thus, in this essay, the only plausible approach is to consider the views which hold a majority.

1. The Similarities Between the God of the Bible and the Supreme Being.

The most significant similarity between the African God and the Biblical God is the fundamental belief in a deity. Atheistic tendencies in Africa are minimal. O’Donovan (1995: 41) goes as far as suggesting that “there is probably no native-born African who is not aware of the existence of God”.

In addition to the belief in deity, the Supreme Being of Africa largely overlaps conceptually with the identity and work of the biblical God. The Supreme Being is personal in the sense of possessing personhood; therefore deity is referred to as a ‘He’ and not as an ‘it’ or a ‘power’ (Gehman, 2005: 319). This personhood is not seen to be manifested physically, but to exist spiritually. Thus, Gehman (2005: 316) succinctly states that, “God has no body; he is invisible”.

The Supreme Being is furthermore perceived as being the creator of the world. Thus everything in the spiritual, and the physical, world is the way it is today as a direct result of his action² (Kato, 1975: 31). Moreover, the Supreme Being sustains this world; that in the sense that he keeps everything which he made in existence at every given moment, and in the sense that he is seen to be the one who provides and protects this world³ (Mbiti, 1991: 49, 52).

From these two beliefs it naturally follows that the Supreme Being is seen as almighty; for he has the power to do anything he desires (O’Donovan, 1995: 41). Complimenting this power, the Supreme Being is seen to have complete knowledge (Mbiti, 1991: 56), to be present everywhere (O’Donovan, 1995: 41), and to be eternal (Nyirongo, 1997: 11).

The Supreme Being is likewise good (Mbiti, 1991: 55). By this Africans understand that God is not only kind, but that he does not do wrong. In contemplating this point Gehman (2005: 320) helpfully states, “Whatever tragedy is experienced is blamed on witchcraft or the living-dead. God is seldom charged with wrong doing in Africa”.

I have opted to not include the concept of transcendence under similarities for I believe it to be an area where African theologians have fundamentally misrepresented African religion, by “‘baptising’ the data in order to project a traditional religion that is compatible with Christianity” (Bowers, 2002: 118). It seems that we need to heed Turaki’s (1999: 149-150) warning to not violate Africa’s holistic view of the world by interpreting the Supreme Being’s transcendence in absolute terms. Rather, it seems that there is less of a chasm between God and the other spirit beings, and that the category used to understand the remoteness of the Supreme Being is not transcendence but differing communal responsibilities (Turaki, 1999: 156).

It is clear that there is much in common between the biblical view of God and the African concept of the Supreme Being. These similarities extend over both the character and the work of each deity. So the question needs to be posed, “Are there any differences between the God of the Bible and the gods of Africa? If so, what are they?”

2. The Differences Between the God of the Bible and the Supreme Being.

There are two major differences between the God of the Bible and the African concepts of God, which I will discuss. I have opted to include fewer differences not because there are not many, but because more explanation is required.

Firstly, the God of the Bible is different to the African gods in that he is knowable and relational. The problem with the African concepts of God is that they go no further than speculation. Indeed, they can go no further because, although humans can pray to the Supreme Being in certain situations (O’Donovan, 1995: 42), he never interacts with, or personally reveals himself to, the people of Africa (Turaki, 1999: 160). By this I am not suggesting that God has not revealed himself through what is commonly referred to as ‘general revelation’. I am suggesting, however, that verbal communication and personal relationship with the Supreme Being are not a reality for the African. Thus, in this area, we observe a stark contrast between the biblical God and the Supreme Being. Since the beginning of time the biblical God has revealed himself through communicating verbally with human beings; in fact, he has done so finally through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-4). In this communication he has told people what he is like and he has offered them the possibility of relationship. Thus, the God of the Bible is different to the Supreme Being of Africa in that he is knowable and relational.

Secondly, the God of the Bible is holy and just. Sin in the African worldview is against the community and not against God (Kato, 1975: 42). As a result, it is the community who is most offended, by these social ills, and it is they who take the responsibility to discipline the offender. Nyirongo (1997: 63) helpfully adds, “The responsibility belongs to those who are physically alive, but more especially to the ancestral spirits who are the custodians of the community”. Therefore we clearly see that it is not the Supreme Being who is offended by these social ills. Yet the Bible cannot conceive of the One True God like that. The biblical God says that sin is against him personally (Psalm 51:4), and causes him great offense (Hosea 9:15). Indeed, God promises that he is judging sin now (Romans 1:24) and will do so in a more comprehensive way in the future (2 Peter 3:7). Thus, in contrast to the humanistic view of sin in the African tradition, the God of the Bible is seen to be holy and just.

In light of the two points above, there do seem to be major differences between the African conception of the Supreme Being and the Christian conception of God. Yet, there are significant similarities at the same time. How, then, are we to think about the Supreme Being as Christians? Is their continuity or discontinuity greater, or more significant? Is the African concept of God an effective praeparateo evangelica for African Christianity? These are vital questions which we shall now consider.

3. Are The Similarities Or The Differences More Significant?

In reflecting on the world without God’s word, Romans 1:21 says that “although [people] knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened”.

From this verse two things are evident. Firstly, Africans do know something about God. Indeed, we must affirm that the Bible is correct when it asserts that God’s divinity and power have been plain since the creation of the world (Romans 1:19-20). Furthermore, due to the nature of the evidence, its scope must be universal; and so we cannot exclude Africans from this knowledge. God has not left himself without a witness in Africa; no, he has clearly spoken through what has been made. Therefore, we must affirm what is correct in the African conception of deity.

Secondly, Africans have distorted their knowledge of God. Although there is much in the Supreme Being which corresponds with the biblical conception of deity, Romans 1:21 argues that this knowledge has been illegitimately expanded and perverted. Therefore, Africa has effectively made its own God. Byang Kato (1985: 32) states this point with great clarity when he says, “Whatever rationalization we may try to make, the worship of gods in Africa is idolatry”. Thus, at the point where revelation from the deity becomes re-creation into a new deity, it becomes impossible to see the biblical God as a continuity of the African God (Turaki, 1999: 160).

Conclusion.

In light of the above it seems that we should affirm the similarities between the biblical God and the African God. These similarities are seen in the belief in the existence of a personal and spiritual deity who is the almighty creator, and the all-knowing, protecting provider. Moreover, he is good, eternal and omnipresent.

Yet, at the same time it must always be maintained that this is fundamentally a different God due to Africa’s distortion of general revelation. Examples of where this difference is manifested are, amongst others, holiness, justice, knowledge and relationship. Yet, these are surface cracks which reveal to us the much greater underlying problem of idolatry. As Christians we must believe that if Africa is to have any hope in God her God must be the God of the Bible. Therefore, we need to be aware of this idolatry and proclaim with great boldness the God of the Bible throughout Africa.

________________________________________

¹ Discussions about ancestors, dynamism and spiritism are important but unfortunately fall outside the scope of this essay. Return to essay

² There is some argument about whether the Supreme Being created ex nihilo or merely organised some type of existing matter. Obviously you will find tribes subscribing to both sides of this argument. Either way, however, the world as we see it today is a direct result of the activities of the Supreme Being and so it is legitimate to say that he created this world. Return to essay

³ However, the dual activities of providing and protecting are not undertaken directly by the Supreme Being. Rather, the Supreme Being commissions other beings in the spiritual hierarchy to undertake these tasks. Return to essay

⁴ In fact, Nyirongo (1997: 16) states, “That God revealed Himself to the pre-Christian African generations cannot be denied. Also that he continues to speak to all the tribes of Africa who have not heard the Gospel can also not be denied”. By this he is asserting that God has revealed himself in a general way through what has been created and in that sense he has spoken and continues to speak to every African. Return to essay

⁵ It is worth noting that most conceive sin to be originally against the Supreme Being, and that is what plunged the world into its current state (Nyirongo, 1997: 61). Return to essay

⁶ It is worth quoting Nyirongo (1997: 16) on this point at length: “That God revealed Himself to the pre-Christian African generations cannot be denied. Also that he continues to speak to all the tribes of Africa who have not heard the Gospel can also not be denied. …The problem is not that God did not speak clearly to the African in the past: the problem is rather what the African did with the revelation he received from God. Instead of positively responding to it in faith, he resorted to idols”. Return to essay

⁷ It is worth bearing this in mind when examining Mbiti’s (1980) statement, “When we identify the God of the Bible as the same God who is known through African religion … we must also take it that God has had a historical relationship with African peoples. … Their history has a theological meaning. … In this case, so-called “salvation history” must widen its outreach in order to embrace the horizons of other peoples’ histories”. Notice that his argument is built on a fundamental continuity between the biblical God and the African God, and thus it is basically flawed. Return to essay

Bibliography:

  • BOWERS, P. 2002. African theology: its history, dynamics, scope and future. African Journal of Evangelical Theology, 21(2): 109-126.
  • GEHMAN, R.J. African traditional religion in biblical perspective. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.
  • KATO, B. 1975. Theological pitfalls in Africa. Kisumu, Kenya: Evangel Publishing House.
  • KATO, B. 1985. Biblical Christianity in Africa: a collection of papers and addresses. Africa Christian press.
  • MBITI, J. 1980. The encounter of Christian faith and African religion. [web:] http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1746. Date of access: 17 March 2010.
  • MBITI, J.S. 1991. Introduction to African religion. 2nd ed. Oxford, United Kingdom: Heinemann Educational Publishers.
  • NYIRONGO, L. 1997. The gods of Africa or the God of the Bible? The snares of African traditional religion in perspective. Cape Town, South Africa: Potchefstroom University.
  • O’DONOVAN, W. 1995. Biblical Christianity in African perspective. 2nd ed. Carlisle, UK : Paternoster Press.
  • SMITH, E.W. 1950. African ideas of God: a symposium. London: Edinburgh House press.
  • SPENCER, A.B. & SPENCER, W.D. eds. 2001. The global God: multicultural evangelical views of God. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI : BridgePoint Books.
  • TOZER, A.W. 1994. The knowledge of the holy. Carlisle, UK : OM Publishing.
  • TURAKI, Y. 1999. Christianity and African gods: a method in theology. Cape Town, South Africa: Potchefstroom University.

Worth Hearing: Showbread – Matthias Replaces Judas

no sir, nihilism is not practicalI was driving around town with a friend the other day when this song started playing. As soon as it came on he turned to me and told me to shut up. He then turned up the volume to the point where I felt droplets of blood trickling out of my ear. Since I had nothing else to do I figured I might as well give the song a listen. I wasn’t disappointed.

And neither will you be. I say this because I feel it would be remarkably sinister for me to not share this song with you. In fact, I feel so strongly about this that I even endured the painfully slow speed of my ADSL connection to grab you both a youtube video and the lyrics. I have since found out that I do not have the necessary technical skills to get the youtube video to appear on this page. So instead I provide you with a link to the video (http://bit.ly/eo01qH) and the lyrics below. [Ed: easily fixed by any fantastic webmaster]

Enjoy.

Lyrics:

It is so that my transgressions have born a withered fruit,
The sun has scorched the rising plants, alas they have no root,
The bleached bones of animals bound by leather strips,
Dance through the air with laughter as I wield this wicked whip.

As you did warn me carpenter, this world has weakened my heart,
So easily I disparage, self-seeking the work of my art,
And there you have come to me, at the moment I bathe in my sorrow,
So in love with myself, sought after avoiding tomorrow,

Where do you find the love to offer he who betrays you?
And offer to wash my feet as I offer to disobey you,
Your beauty does bereave me, and how my words do fail,
So faithfully and dutifully I award you with betrayal.

The weak and the downtrodden fall on broken legs,
As I walk past a smile I cast, fervor in my stead,
But my bones like plastic, do buckle backward now,
I lay in this field by Judas, anticipate the plow.

I cannot be forgiven, my wages will be paid,
For those more lovely and admirable is least among the saved,
And where would I fit, Jesus? What place is left for me?
The price of atonement is more than I’ve found to offer up as my plea.

Jesus, my heart is all I have to give to you, so weak and so unworthy,
This simply will not do, no alabaster jar, no diamond in the rough,
For your body that was broken, how can this be enough?
By me you were abandoned, by me you were betrayed,
Yet in your arms and in your heart forever I have stayed.

Your glory illuminates my life, and no darkness will descend,
For you have lived forever and your love will never end.

Can we call Jesus the proto-ancestor?

Black Jesus Pendant

The Jesus of Africa must be the Jesus of the Bible if Africa is to have any hope in God” (Krohn, 2007)

When we discuss how to authentically present Jesus in Africa we need to be clear what is at stake. Beyers & Mphahlele (2009: 42) helpfully remind us that this “is neither just about a new title for Jesus, an Africa-specific title, nor even an African metaphor used for Christ… . It is about an understanding of Christology and consequently an understanding of soteriology”. In light of this, we must do everything in our power to reach a thoughtful and biblical conclusion. So, this goal shall be our guide as we consider whether it is legitimate to present Jesus as the proto-ancestor.

An authentically African, and biblical, Christology.

Africa has been inestimably shaped by colonisation. This is a truth which deeply affects the topic at hand. It is fair to say that every aspect of African life has been in some way affected by this confrontation. Bowers (2002: 113-114) argues that this confrontation has, most importantly, “meant for Africa a deprivation … in fundamental self-understanding”. As a result, Africa wants to know who she is. This search has entered African Christianity and has taken hold of the central figure of Christian faith: Jesus. Africans want to know who He is to them and how they are to relate to Him.

This search for an authentically African Christology has resulted in many African theologians considering God’s work in Africa prior to the missionaries; specifically with regards to his work of revelation. While this is no place to discuss the complex issue of whether African Traditional Religions are an effective praeparateo evangelica, it is worth noting that this consideration has, at many points, created an overly positive view of the pre-Christian theological system of Africa. Thus, much modern literature examining questions, such as the one above, mingles African and biblical theology. In response to this, Bowers (2002: 123) suggests that “[It] is not enough to ask, as African Theology has rightly and insistently done, how may African Christianity become more authentically African? It must also insistently be asked how African Christianity may become ever more authentically Christian”. With this in mind, we have to consider whether it is most helpful, and biblically faithful, to present Jesus as the ‘proto-ancestor’. We will do this by critiquing the traditional African understanding of ancestors in light of the Bible.

African understanding of ancestors.

Nyamiti (cited in Beyers and Mphahlele, 2009: 38-39) notes some common traits of ancestral beliefs throughout the world. They say that, firstly, there is a natural understanding of relationship between ancestors and the living, similar to that of a parent-child relationship. Secondly, they tell us that it is believed that ancestors automatically acquire some kind of supernatural power after they die. Thirdly, ancestors are believed to be inferior to God and are not seen as sharing in the divine nature. Fourthly, they are believed to take part in the daily routine of the family. Lastly, they are considered exemplars of good human behaviour. This last point is, in fact, the reason they have become ancestors.

A more specific outline of the distinct function of ancestors in African Traditional Religions is given by Beyers and Mphahlele (2009: 39) in three points. Firstly they are seen as companions who give advice on the journey of life. Secondly, they mediate between God and humans. Thirdly, they are guardians of familial traditions and moral values.

While it would be impossible to examine each of these aspects in detail here, it would in the same way be superficial to deal in a broad way with these aspects and examine none of them in detail. As a solution we will consider the mediating role of the ancestors, since it is arguably the most significant aspect, as a way of covering at least some of this data in more detail.

The role of a mediator in Africa.[1]

Maganda (2002: 151) states that the ancestors are believed to be “protectors of their families who appear to [the family], notifying them of imminent peril and reproving those who failed to follow their directives”. From this we should note that they are human beings who have gained greater power, and closer proximity to the Supreme Being, after death. They are furthermore understood to use this power over the physical world and thus the “whole range of human success and misfortune is subject to [them]” (Maganda, 2002: 152). It is, therefore, clear that they mediate authority and power (Kabasele, 1991: 120). In light of this it is true to describe the interaction of Africans with their ancestors, by means of ‘worship’ and rituals, as manipulative attempts to secure their good will (Maganda, 2002: 152, 161).

The biblical role of a mediator.

In the New Testament, the word mediator, μεσιτης, is used in two ways. Firstly, mediators function to “intervene between two parties in order to promote relations between them which the parties themselves are not able to effect… the mediator effects reconciliation” (NBD, 1996: 746); this is seen most clearly in 1 Timothy 2:5. Notice also that the reason mediation was needed was because of man’s sin, as this had brought about alienation between man and God (Eph. 2:1-3). Secondly, a mediator is “one who acts as a ‘guarantee’ so as to secure something which otherwise could not be obtained” (Maganda, 2002: 159); this is seen in Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, and 12:24. Thus, Jesus is presented in the New Testament as “the mediator of the New Covenant, the arrangement by which God and man are one at last. He is the only way through which man can reach God and have fellowship with him” (Maganda, 2002: 160). The reason that He is the only way is because he was never alienated, because he never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), and because he is God in human form (Macleod, 1998: 152).

An evaluative comparison of the biblical and African understanding of a mediator.

From the above it should be clear that upon inspection the superficial similarities, between the biblical and African understanding of a mediator, turn out to be the tip of an iceberg of profound difference. Ancestral mediation does not have an end goal of producing peace between two parties (Maganda, 2002: 160). In fact, it is possible, in African conception, for the mediator to be one of the parties who needs to be appeased. Yet, frequently, the mediation has more to do with the enforcement of rule in the community, as well as the transfer and use of power, than it has to do with reconciliation of the Supreme Being and Africans. These aspects, due to their incompatibility, need to be rejected or modified to align with the biblical understanding of a mediator.

Furthermore, note that within the African understanding Jesus need not be deity. In fact, within that understanding, it would be inconceivable for the mediator to be the Supreme Being. Therefore, we need to exercise caution at this point. Maganda (2002: 162) rightly encourages us to assert that while Jesus is like the ancestors, in that He is fully man (Romans 1:3), he is also different to them, in that He is fully God (Colossians 1:15; 2:9; 2 Corinthians 4:4). Thus Jesus is more than just superior to the African ancestors at this point, He is of an entirely different class of being.

In light of the above, although it seems possible to present Jesus as mediator, and therefore proto-ancestor, the direction in which this thinking takes us, as well as the qualifications and modifications which are required for it to be legitimate, makes it seem unhelpful. The problem is that one is either left with a syncretistic understanding of Jesus’ mediation, or the concept is altered to such a point that it is emptied of its original meaning. In light of this, it may be helpful to engage in a linguistic consideration: can this metaphor be sustained when applied to Jesus?

Linguistic consideration of the ancestral metaphor.

Throughout the New Testament there are many metaphors which are applied to Jesus. Yet, in each instance He is analogised to legitimate metaphorical ideas: Jesus was a good son, a good king, a good teacher and a good saviour. We can subscribe to the metaphor of kingship, along with the others listed above, because kingship exists and is not opposed by God in a fundamental way.

We should not, however, be quick to suggest that the African institution of ancestors exists and is supported by God. While one should not for one moment doubt the experience of Africans, we must hold above that the truth of Scripture. When considering this topic, Scripture says “[The] dead… no longer have a part in anything that happens on earth” (Ecc. 9:5-6, NET). Due to this fact, God not only denies their activity in the world, He also asserts that He is opposed to anyone attempting to relate to the dead (Deut. 18:12). Therefore, in the very least, we should hesitate to apply this metaphor to Jesus.

The problem is not so much that the term itself forces a wrong understanding of Jesus, for words can be redefined. It is more that it creates an unhelpful relationship between Jesus and the ancestors. When Jesus is referred to as the proto-ancestor, just as when he is referred to as the King, he is bound to that metaphor. Thus, the way people perceive Jesus will be bound up with their understanding of the ancestors. This will mean that any difference we argue for between Jesus and the ancestors will be one of degree and not of kind, and so we would have implicitly affirmed the ancestral system. To avoid this, one would have to say that the ancestral system, which was false, was looking for something which was real, and that real thing is Jesus. In this case, however, surely it is more helpful to separate the reality from the falsehood than to closely associate them?

Conclusion.

In our considerations it has become clear that it is not impossible to present Jesus as the proto-ancestor. Yet, it will not be helpful to present Jesus in this way to Africans who want to understand Christ as the biblical Saviour who meets their real spiritual needs. Rather, a more helpful Christological metaphor must be sought which would help Africans authentically identify with Jesus in their context.

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[1] I rely heavily at this point upon Maganda (2002), who has undertaken such a study.

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