Book Review: What the Bible Teaches About the Trinity

Considering the present theological maelstrom about the Trinity punctuating most timelines and newsfeeds, I chalked it up to providence when I was given this short book to review. While the intricacies of the Son’s eternal submission to the Father will be dismissed as a superfluous conversation by many, studying what God has revealed about himself as both three and one – Father, Son, and Spirit, yet one God and not three gods – is not a subject (if we can call it that) that any Christian should pass over. Indeed, every Christian should be familiar with what the Bible teaches about the Trinity. In this helpful and mercifully short book Stuart Olyott sets out to do just that.

Stuart OlyottIn the introduction, Olyott offers his work as a primer, both concise and accessible. Without assuming to settle minor and infinitely complicated details about our doctrine of the Trinity, throughout the book the reader is presented with the major tenets and a few key passages. He acknowledges disagreements, mostly those of the past, and modestly owns that there is much as creatures we will never comprehend. Instead his modest aim for the work is that, “It will remove that sense of strangeness that you may feel as you first approach this deep subject and make it possible for you to progress where once you thought you would never begin” (p7). Olyott achieves this, providing his reader with a very useful and far from insignificant first step in their lifelong study of the living and true God, the Trinity.

Even though Olyott overstates the point when he writes that no question about God containing the word ‘how’ can be answered (p15), I appreciate that he makes humility and adoration key components to his work. As the author says, “We come as humble learners, searching the Scriptures…humbled that we cannot enter anywhere, except where he has permitted. We are not as God. We are creatures. We can never discover what he has not revealed” (p16). This is such an important and often overlooked point when it comes to the Trinity, specifically, and Christian doctrine, generally. We come to God as fallen and finite creatures, meaning it is appropriate we do not view the subject of God’s nature, or any theological matter, as one we might master. Rather, as Olyott insists from the beginning of his book and concludes in his final chapter, we should walk away from theological study as reverent worshippers. Olyott’s book captures these twin attitudes, as the author refuses to venture far beyond what we can know from Scipture and he brings the book to a close exploring how the truth of God as Trinity shapes worship and prayer.

TrinityWith this attitude of teachable humility and reverence, Olyott approaches the deep truths of God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. You can read other reviews to learn how the book is laid out; here I want to briefly comment on the general flow and aims of the book. Olyott identifies three Trinitarian heresies that have almost always existed in the church: polytheism, Unitarianism or Monarchianism, and modalism (p51; expanded on p81-86). The first overstates God’s plurality or threeness, resulting in three gods as opposed to the God who is one. The second favours God’s oneness and generally– for example in Arianism – denies the full divinity of the Son or the Spirit. The third suggests that God has at different points in history worn different masks, meaning there is no Son for God simply took another form or mode. But identifying the common heresies that ignore and twist the witness of Scripture does not get us where we need to be. Olyott then unpacks the mystery of the Trinity, affirming threeness and oneness, distinction and unity, the full divinity of each person of the Trinity with the repeated scriptural insistence that there is one God. This forms the bulk of the work and is worth reflective reading, critical engagement, and serious study. Olyott carefully guides the reader through the turbulent waters of Trinitarian theology, making all the necessary stops, and only a few that would have been better left out of a primer. The author works hard throughout his work to make plain what has been revealed to us but also warning against that which has not. I appreciated his simplicity, especially considering that God’s Triune being is perhaps the greatest mystery we will ever encounter (p16); and I thought the strict dismissal of all analogies for the Trinity was an important challenge to teachers and students alike (p78, 86). Though he covers immense ground in a short space, Olyott does well to avoid reductionism and shows that when it comes to the Trinity responsible simplicity can only go so far.

Before concluding this review, it must be said that while Olyott demonstrates the appropriate instinct to turn his abridged theology into doxology, I found his application to be shallow. This shallowness also extends to Olyott’s theological corrections, which are dated. On the first criticism, my want for application, to limit the practical value of the doctrine of the Trinity to worship, prayer, and salvation feels like a sermon where the application is: read your Bible, pray, and evangelise. To pick just a few examples, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity is immensely important for our understanding of the cross, progressive holiness or sanctification, God’s comforting and powerful presence, being transformed by God’s Word, and properly grasping human nature since we are made in the image of God. Secondly, the book possesses too few timely corrections that the proper understanding of the nature and work of God results in. Obviously this is not a work exclusively on the Holy Spirit, but pneumatology is an area where modern misunderstandings must be challenged. And I am not only talking disagreements about spiritual gifts or growing Pentecostalism; we desperately need work to be done around the role of the Spirit in empowering and making Christians fruitful, illuminating Scripture, and convicting us of sin. These were my two major criticisms of the book: it lacked rich, practical application and did not adequately challenge the significant errors that result from an incomplete view of God as he has revealed himself. But the brief work more than makes up for these shortcomings elsewhere.

Scotum FideiIn closing, let me reiterate the outstanding positives of Olyott’s work: accessibility, humility in approaching this study, application of the truth that God is Trinity, careful treatment what Scripture teaches, and the correction of common Trinitarian heresies, unwitting and deliberate. I have other further questions that I would like to raise but this review is already far too long. Therefore I highlighted just two concerns about the book, chosen because of the nature and intended audience of book: application and challenging prevalent misunderstandings. Having said that, my copy is well marked and I plan on returning to it in the future as both a teaching resource and invaluably concise reminder of the God whom we worship.

I received this book for free from Evangelical Press in exchange for this honest review. I was not required to write a positive review of the book. If you enjoyed this then you might enjoy other reviews I have written, here and here, covering some theological works, Christian living, and a few novels.

The Magician’s Nephew: A Strange but Familiar God

My wife and I recently decided to workLewis - Narnia through C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Growing up functionally illiterate, in a non-Christian home, meant that I stumbled into Narnia as an adult. Yet the subsequent comings and goings between my world and Narnia have retained the wonder of childlike discovery, and I cannot imagine that familiarity will ever dull my enjoyment Lewis’ resplendent masterpiece. Aiming to reflect on one chronicle a month, I hope to offer short posts sharing the light shed by each rereading, starting here with The Magician’s Nephew, though I think the point picked here applies to the entire series.

Referring to the Lewis’ entire Narnia narrative, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, argues in The Lion’s World that Lewis was not trying to simply translate or repackage Christian doctrine. Instead the stories evoke what it feels like to believe in the Christian faith. Thus Lewis offers his readers the opportunity of encountering what they think they know for the first time. This is no truer than Lewis’ portrayal of Aslan, the Christian God.

Lewis cleverly exhibits this in the character of the Cockney Cabby. Standing in the dark and unformed Narnia, Aslan begins to sing, “[What] was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it” (p61). Ironically, the Cabby exclaims, “Gawd,” as the Voice resonates with their souls and raises the new Narnian landscape. Then, alongside Digory and Polly, “[With] open mouths and shining eyes; they were drinking in the sound, and they looked as if it reminded them of something” (p62). “The earth was of many colours: they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited; until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else.” It is God indeed who the Cabby sees in the fresh light of Narnia’s young sun. Though however magnificent the newly created world is, and long before Jadis’ evil has sunken deep roots there, the Singer rather than the song demands the audience’s attention.

After addressing the animals and before Aslan establishes the Cabby and his wife as the first king and queen of Narnia, he asks the Cabby (p81-82), “I have known you long. Do you know me?” The Cabby replies, a little perplexed, “Well, no, sir. Leastways, not in an ordinary manner of speaking. Yet I feel somehow, if I may make so free, as ’ow we’ve met before.” To which the Lion says, “You know better than you think you know, and you shall live to know me better yet.” The Cabby is then asked if he would like to stay in Narnia, where he would not only rule but also come to know Aslan, without the obstructions of the world he knew, back in London. Lewis does this for us, his readers, too. We are invited to encounter our Creator, who does not merely invest his creation with the marvellous richness of his own mind but installs us as his honourable rulers. This is the story that we think we know, even possessing some vague recollection of, yet choose to forget.

Lewis in 1950Aslan is at the same time both oddly familiar and unsettlingly strange. The Cabby knows this Lion. And so do we. For this is no mere literary character, he is the immense God that Lewis loved. This God lends great dignity to people. He searches them out, drawing them to himself. He steps across worlds in order that they might know him. As Rowan Williams writes, “In a word, what Lewis portrays with such power and freshness in Narnia is simply grace: the unplanned and uncontrolled incursion in our self-preoccupied lives of God’s joy in himself.” But, and it is apt that the last word comes from Aslan, full of regret and a heavy heart, when he describes Digory’s uncle the magician, “Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good” (p98).

How Aronofsky’s Noah Misrepresents God, Man, and Sin

Noahs-ark-pic

As the dust settles around Noah and Christian audiences set their gaze (or crosshairs) on Son of God I thought I would throw some brief and no doubt far from novel thoughts into the cooling cauldron of Aronofsky’s film. James has written a balanced post here; though making many qualifications, he suggests three features that we ought to appreciate and discuss. For despite the movie failing to clearly communicate the message of Genesis 6-9, many of its details and interpretive salvos are colourfully thought provoking, even helpful. However, in this post, I want to highlight areas where Aronofsky’s eisegesis contributed to the film’s failure in conveying Noah’s story, immediately embedded in Genesis and ultimately the seedbed for all of Scripture.

1. God is vague

From the outset of the film “the Creator” is palpably distant. This God, tending towards silence, gives Noah dreams. The interpretation of these dreams is however not offered by God but rather through an encounter with Methuselah the mystic. Noah is not lead by God but left by him, to ponder what on earth the Creator hoped to tell him. To risk pointing out the glaringly obvious, in Genesis we read that God spoke to Noah (see 6:13; 7:1); later he would establish a covenant with Noah and reiterate the promises of the Abrahamic covenant (8:20-9:17). But perhaps the most significant detail is found in Genesis 6:9, “Noah walked with God,” casting our minds back to Eden when God walked with Adam and Eve (3:8). The picture is one of closeness and intimacy, indicating that Noah was in the presence of God. Yet Aronofsky’s Creator is vague and unclear, leaving Noah to not only piece together the dreams but also determine the course of human history, which almost backfires when he decides to end human progeny. Aronofsky’s God is more akin to Dawkin’s “blind watchmaker” or George Lucas’ “Force” than the personal presence that we meet in Genesis, walking with and talking to his creation. To steal the wording from a post I wrote a while back: in Noah, God is denied the ability to reveal himself to what he has made, as we are asked to imagine he either has no qualms with being completely misunderstood and misrepresented or is simply incapable of making himself known. Without suggesting that Noah was unsure, even unconvinced about what God promised to do, we must maintain that his doubts were never because God was unclear.

2. Man and sin

Aronofsky's NoahI agree with James that Aronosky clearly showed the need for mercy in the light of evil. However where the film missed the mark was in its depiction of sin, which was implicitly defined as the mistreatment of creation. The city dwellers, led by Tubal-Cain, thought that their God-given dominion justified a rapacious handling of the created world. I have written regarding the covenant of creation, here and here, where I showed that Adam and Eve were appointed as custodians, rather than conquerors, over creation. This task involved faithful obedience to God’s authority, retaining the created order where God rules what he has made through his image-bearers. Therefore, responsible rule is not measured in care for the creation but submission to the Creator. Sin, seen in exploiting the environment or fratricide, stems from disobedience to God. Wickedness may become manifest in the abuses Aronofsky vividly portrayed, but is ultimately defined by man’s relation to God rather than what God has made. Aronofsky’s Noah completely muddied this point. Surely Noah’s description as righteous and blameless man, who walked with God (Genesis 6:9) means more than that he had green fingers. Oppositely, the wickedness of Tubal-Cain and his followers is grander than their distasteful misuse of creation. Unwittingly the film comes close to showing sin for what it is – in fleeting references to Eden as well as Tubal-Cain’s final speech – but this is unfortunately obscured by Aronofsky’s redefinition, away from obedience to the Creator and towards worshipping the creation.

Conclusion of sorts

The details might be unclear, because the Creator is vague, and the verdict of wickedness imprecise, because the urgency for environmentalism is an easier implication than repentance. Yet in the film, Noah correctly diagnoses humanity, as inherently evil. The solution he reaches is startling: the rebirth of creation cannot happen without the death of mankind. Tentatively, in closing, I want to suggest that Noah’s disturbing conclusion is not far from biblical truth. The curse of death is God’s just ruling for a world that has, since the Adam and Eve, embraced the rebellion of our first parents. More than simply embracing it, the biblical as well as empirical evidence shows that we are enslaved to it. Paul says that only one who has died has been set free from sin (Romans 6:7). Through faith we are united to Jesus in his death (6:5), the old self is put to death with him (6:6). This has brought about not only the hope of resurrection life in the future but also newness of life in the present (6:4). Paul exhorts those who have died to live to God and die to sin (6:10-11). Here Noah, the apostle Paul, and John Calvin collude, “[It is] as if God had declared that for us to be reckoned amongst his children our common nature must die” (Institutes 3.3.8). But the magnificent news is that this happens through the nearness of God, initially through union with Christ in his death and through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.

Our Desires are Met in God

Broken cisternsContrary to what many people think, biblical Christianity is fond of desire. Scripture presents enjoyment and satisfaction in a brightly positive light, yet we are also taught in Scripture where to primarily direct our desires if they are to be fulfilled and dissuaded from and shown the emptiness of the man’s misguided quest for fulfillment in all the wrong things. Christians can discover healthy avenues for desire and simultaneously learn that our lives are not built around the pursuit of satisfaction. God fixed our desires in us. The mistake many people make is that they will be satisfied through the unchecked pursuit of satisfaction. Yet these impetuous searches are most often unrealistic and always unfulfilling. Desire is good but, to quote Jeremiah, ‘we hew out cisterns that can hold no water’ and wonder why we are perpetually thirsty.

I recently read David Gemmell’s Troy trilogy and in the second book, Shield of Thunder, Gemmell’s Aeneas is dying in bed, feverish and faint from an infected wound, when he has a vision of an immense Mycenaean soldier who fought and died beside him in a defense of Troy. He tells Aeneas that we are tiny flickering flames in the dark for no more than a heartbeat, “When we strive for wealth, glory and fame, it is meaningless. The nations we fight for will one day cease to be. Even the mountains we gaze upon will turn to dust. To truly live we must yearn for that which does not die.” These are arrestingly wise words. But what is the undying that we must yearn for? What is the true life that striving for will not result in those familiar feelings of being unfulfilled despite gratifying our desires?

C.S. Lewis, in his essay The Weight of Glory, memorably wrote of our vain pursuit and misplaced expectations, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The pursuit of real Joy, what we might call the answer to our desires longings, is the obvious theme of Lewis’ autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. Alister McGrath’s recent biography of Lewis highlights Blaise Pascal as one of Lewis’ implicit influences, for the French philosopher said that man has an “infinite abyss” inside of him that can only be filled by an “infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” It is not a far step from here to the too oft quoted words of Augustine in Confessions, “You [God] stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Williams - The truce of GodThe former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote in Truce of God that unreal desire stumbles from moment to moment desperate to gratify an immediate hunger. That hunger, writes Williams, is not realised as part of being human and therefore incapable of being plugged by our endless attempts. He goes on to say that we mistakenly set out to organise all things around our self, rather than seeing Christ as the magnetic centre of all things. There is one Person who can satisfy us, for whom we were made, yet we exchange that desire for wanting everything else and tragically spend our lives thinking those many things will replace the single and satisfactory one. Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well have never been truer, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I will give them will never be thirsty again.”

 

Samuel Rutherford on Divine Providence

Rutherford Tomb Stone“When the Lord’s blessed will bloweth across your desires, it is best, in humility, to strike sail to him, and to be willing to be led any way our Lord pleaseth” (p78).

If you were hoping for a precise systematic exposition of the often confusing, sometimes unnerving and always difficult doctrine of God’s providence then you are in the wrong place. For my devotional reading I have been working through Samuel Rutherford’s Letters (Banner of Truth, 1973) and as I have made my way through them it has become apparent that Rutherford was more than qualified to speak about God’s providence and wrestling with it. At the age of 27, recently armed with an MA in divinity, Rutherford settled in Anwoth, a small rural town in the south of Scotland, and for the next 9 years he served as a devoted pastor in that dispersed community. Rutherford was, before anything else, a wonderfully gifted and genuinely committed pastor who loved God’s people, or kirk. The energy he poured into the people of Anwoth did not go unnoticed; there stands to this day a massive obelisk which was erected in his honour in the 19th century. However Rutherford’s road was not a smooth one as he was forcibly relocated to Aberdeen in 1636 as a result of his Calvinistic theology and non-conformity with the Arminian theology, which was becoming increasingly prevalent. Despite Charles I claiming Protestant allegiance, his interest was lacking at local level; religious turmoil, which frequently stung the Puritans, reigned alongside the monarch. The long and short of it is that Rutherford was torn from his sheep in Anwoth. The agony of being away from those with whom he had shared rich Christian fellowship is evident in the letters he wrote from Aberdeen, almost all of which were penned to provide pastoral guidance and Christian counsel. But another thing that is hard to ignore is Rutherford’s grappling with God’s providence. Why had he been sent to Aberdeen? Why did God allow the Arminians to drive him from his local parish in Anwoth, abandoning his congregation to the proverbial wolves?

Rutherford’s grief at having his ministry in Anwoth derailed came as a probing challenge to his faith in Christ. His struggles drove him back to Christ and were most probably the cause for one of his favourite expressions, ‘the sweet cross of Christ’. Suffering did not cause him to question God’s love but rather to query God’s plan. And so in a letter, addressed to Marion M’Naught (p16), who was Rutherford’s most contacted correspondent, he challenged her, “employ all of your endeavours for establishing an honest ministry in your town, now when you have so few to speak a good word for you.” Marion had written to Rutherford out of desperation at her situation, being one of very few Christians in the town she called home. Rutherford’s response was simply that she was to make use of her trying circumstances and difficulties in witnessing to Christ, glorifying him in her life and trusting him that she was there because God intended her to be. This view undergirds much of Rutherford’s correspondence. So providence for Rutherford was not the cold, calculated doctrine that says God is in control and moving us around like chess pieces but the warm, faith-enriching truth that God is at work guiding us back to him and forcing us to look around at where we find ourselves and ask how we might glorify God in the situation he has placed us.

Samuel RutherfordThe above understanding that Rutherford presents is nowhere as clearly evinced, in my own reading so far, as in his letter to John Stuart (p76). John Stuart had run into serious difficulties with business and was delayed from getting to New England. Rutherford assured him that the events were not some strange “dumb Providence” (p77). Stuart’s business had suffered significantly and he was despondent but Rutherford pointed him to God’s loving kindness and its immense depth. Rutherford goes on, “I hope that you have been asking what the Lord meaneth, and what further may be his will, in reference to your return”. Rutherford encouraged Stuart that despite the dark side of providence God had a better side which he will show to those who are courageous. When Rutherford utilises Romans 8:28, too often quoted without much sensitivity to those in turmoil, we can agree that God does work for the good of those who love him. “Hence, I infer that losses, disappointments, ill-tongues, loss of friends, houses or country, are God’s workmen” set to work for the believer’s good (p78). Despite the hardships that befall us, Rutherford reminds us that in what seems like unfatherly hardship God is not being unpleasant towards us. God brings us to the place where we must deny ourselves, to be as if we had no will at all, and sell ourselves over to God’s sovereign work in the world, his providence, in free disposition of our wants and longings. Rutherford concluded this point in his letter to John Stuart exhorting the reader to makes use of God’s will, which Rutherford believed was “true holiness, and your ease and peace”.

Why does any of this matter; where does it intersect with us and our own lives? The point to emphasise is this: we are not called to trust glibly in God’s providence, affirming his control over all matters blindly; from Rutherford’s experienced pen we learn that God’s providence invites us to put aside our desires and hopes, and allow ourselves to be swept along with God, dedicating ourselves in faith to his desires for this world.

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.

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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

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