Thursday, May 23, 2013

Biblical Christianity in African Perspective - O'Donovan

Chapter 4- The God We Cannot Understand

This is the first time, I feel, that O'Donovan actually begins to wrestle with Biblical Christianity in terms of an African perspective, even if only superficially.  Again, he asks five questions.

A.  What can we learn about God from African traditional religions and from nature?
"Someone has observed that there is probably no native-born African who is not a ware of the existence of God...(but) how accurate is the traditional African idea of God?" (41)  O'Donovan lists a few traditional beliefs.

  • the creator and sustainer of life
  • the exalted one - seems to be removed and separate and must be approached through intermediaries
  • the all powerful one
  • the all-knowing one
  • the final judge
  • the all-present one

Biblical Christianity can agree with most of these, once qualified, but therein lies the problem.  The manner in which this Deity is approached in different traditional socio-religious and cultural systems determines whether the God being approached is the Biblical God or not.  For instance, for Christians there is only one mediator between God and Man and that is the Man Christ Jesus...there are not multiple mediators such as ancestors, spirits, or the local witch-doctors.  Also, the character of God is often misrepresented.  Creation itself, while witnessing to the reality of a supreme being, does not reveal the fullness of His character and therefore religions based on observation alone are limited at best and totally misguided at worst.

B.  What additional revelation about God is given to us in the Bible?
Basically, the Bible fills in the "gaps" left by limited human observation and reasoning.

C.  How can one God be three Persons?
Let's talk about kittens, shall we?  Seriously, arguments about the Trinity have been going on for centuries.  O'Donovan lists the biblical texts for the doctrine and two images used to illustrate the doctrine, namely water (liquid, ice, and steam) and an egg (shell, yolk, and albumin).

One he does not mention is humanity itself - we are at least two in one if not three in one. But then, all illustrations are limited and one simply has to accept the doctrine by faith and a good dose of Deuteronomy 29:29.

D.  What happened when God became a human being?
The incarnation.  God took on the form of one of His creatures...100% God and yet also 100% Man.  Again O'Donovan lists biblical texts to answer his question.

My addition:  Personally, I think it is easier to explain why Jesus took on the form of a Man.  Adam blew it and He came to reverse that catastrophic blunder by paying the penalty for sin as a sinless Man for sinful Man. Only a Man could pay Man's penalty, but as all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, God had to pay the penalty He had imposed Himself - but He needed to take on the form of Man to do that.

E.  How can God be present everywhere at the same time?
I'll wrap this up quickly - if God is God, He is bigger than anything in the universe - He both fills it and transcends it.  So, He's everywhere...

Something to think about:  If God could be fully comprehend by Man, would He still be God?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

biblical Christianity in African Perspective - O'Donovan

Chapter 3 - How the Bible Came to Us

O'Donovan considers five questions in this chapter.  I will briefly summarize his answers.

A.  How did we get the Bible?
Oral tradition - "...the same way that stories are passed from one generation to another around the fire at night in African villages." (31)
Written tradition - from picture writing to Cuneiform (+ 2000 BC) and so on...
The work of the scribes - O'Donovan discusses the ancient concern for accuracy in these copies and the various archaeological proofs of this accuracy
The Canon of Scripture - the biblical books generally accepted by the people of God
The Septuagint - Greek translations by 72 scholars 250 BC
The Vulgate - Latin translation by Jerome AD 388
The Codices - 3rd century AD - copies of the Bible consisting of hand copies pages held together like a book
English language Bible - Beda AD 735
                                     Wycliffe AD 1384
                                     (Gutenberg Press AD 1456)
                                     (German Bible AD 1467; French bible AD 1487)
                                     Tyndale AD 1526 (strangled and burned at the stake)
                                     Coverdale AD 1535
                                     King James Scholars AD 1611

B.  Has the Bible been changed as a result of being translated and passed down over many centuries?
O'Donovan discusses the overwhelming and abundant historical and archaeological testimony of ancient manuscripts
The accuracy of the Masoretic text was confirmed by Dead Sea Scrolls
The most important manuscripts:  The Codex Sinaiticus; Vaticanus; Alexandrinus; Vulgate; Masoretic Hebrew Scrolls; Dead Sea Scrolls
Comparison of these ancient documents show amazing accurate copying

C.  What are the major English translations of the Bible?
a)  The Coverdale - AD 1535 - first complete English translation
b)  The King James - AD 1611
c)  English Revised - AD 1881
d)  American Standard - AD 1901
e)  Revised Standard - AD 1952
f)  New American Standard - AD 1960
g)  Good News Bible - AD 1976
h)  New International - AD 1978
By now there are many more versions, some literal others using the method of dynamic equivalence

D.  Why is the Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) Bible Different?
O'Donovan discusses the exclusion of the so-called Apocryphal writings found in the Roman Catholic Bible (and the Eastern Orthodox Bible)...these books were added at the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in AD 1546.  Most Protestants (like the Anglicans) agree that even though the books are not to be considered Canonical (inspired and thus used in matters of Church doctrine) they do have historical and spiritual value as they were written by believers.

E.  Which version of the English language bible is the most accurate?
This is open to debate - O'Donovan seems to favor the New International, but there are other more recent translations that some say are more accurate such as the New English Translation.  It also depends on what one means by the word "accurate".  Most literal or most understandable?

When it comes to translating the Scriptures into the language of people groups who do not have the Scriptures in their own language, a literal translation may not be the most accurate way to go in terms of conveying the meaning of the original writings.

This was not my most favorite chapter, to be sure...

Monday, May 20, 2013

Biblical Christianity in African Perspective - O'Donovan

Chapter 2:  The Bible - The Basis Of What We Believe

O'Donovan starts this section with a discussion between friends about how one would know which of the many authoritative teachings ought to be followed.  It is obviously a thorny, yet very important discussion as it involves finding and following the truth.  So O'Donovan asks seven basis questions.

A.  How can we know if the Bible is the Word of God and not just the words of men?
Everyone bases their beliefs on something, whether that something is a person, a book, or an oral tradition passed on down through the generations.  Christians base their faith on the Bible as the Word of God.  Is there evidence that would support such an assertion?  O'Donovan lists several reasons to believe that the Bible is a trustworthy foundation.

  • evidence from Apostolic testimony - this is basic eyewitness testimony
  • evidence from prophecy - the biblical test for a true prophet is found in Deuteronomy 18:21.  "If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken."  While most prophetic writings are calls for a return to biblical precepts, there are parts which are predictive...and those predictions have been proved to be true, in spite of repeated attempts of critics to prove otherwise.
  • O'Donovan lists examples of fulfilled prophecy.  Here is a good site to visit:\
  • O'Donovan lists several other reasons such as the unity of the Scriptures - although the Bible is made up of 66 books written by 40 authors living at different times in different places over a period of about 1,600 years, it is one unified story.
  • evidence of changed lives - no other book has had such a consistent life-changing moral effect on people
  • answered prayer

While I agree with all of O'Donovan's points, I do think that he has missed that single most important way we know that the Scriptures are true and that is God's own witness by His Spirit to our spirit.  No one has ever been convinced of the Bible's  Divine authority through any form of cognitive proof.  This is a spiritual matter and can only be believed if the Holy Spirit makes it apparent through divine illumination.  Paul told the Corinthians that "the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."  We may supply all the evidence we can muster, but unless the spirit of the unbeliever has been touched by the Spirit of the Living God, such evidence will make no difference.

My mother always used to say:  "A woman convinced against her will, is of the same opinion still."  That is true of us all.

B.  Is the Bible the only revelation from God or are there other books which are also revelations from God?
O'Donovan really does not deal with this question adequately.  He basically calls for a comparison between rival writings to see which one meets the desired criteria.  All I will say here is that truth can only be singular...either something is true or it is false simply cannot be both at once.  If what the Bible says is true then all other sacred texts cannot also be true.

C.  What did Jesus teach about the authority and accuracy of the Bible?
Jesus taught that the Bible was true, accurate, fixed, unchangeable, eternal, and inspired by God's Spirit.  This is true of all the biblical authors.  They believed that what they were writing was the very Word of God.

Let me add here that the Bible must be read the way it was written.  When a star-struck lover describes the object of his devotion as having teeth that looked like sheep coming up from the washing pool, we must not think that her mouth was woolly and that she spoke in bleats!  Not everything needs to be taken literally!

D.  What about contradictions in the Bible?
This questions has been debated for a very long time by very capable scholars from both sides of the aisle...there's no way this will be settled in a book like O'Donovan's or a blog like mine.  :-)

But I will say this.  J. I. Packer introduced me to a wonderful word.  Antimony.  Two seemingly contradictory ideas that are equally necessary and reasonable.

E.  What may we say about things we don't understand in the Bible?
O'Donovan admits that there are passages that even the best scholars struggle to understand.  In my opinion, the best thing to say in answer to this question is simply, "I don't know."  No one knows everything there is to know about a subject they whole heatedly believe in - even the best scientists would admit that there is much they simply do not know.  Why would we be any different?

F.  What is the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
The bottom line here in this lengthy discussion is that the two Testaments make up the whole of God's dramatic revelation to us through the stories of His interaction with His people.  There is a continuity between these two testaments simply because they have one Author.

G.  What is meant by the inspiration of Scripture?
Again, this is a long discussion, but the easiest way to explain the term inspiration in relation to the recording of the Scriptures is to say that the Holy Spirit directed the authors to write what they wrote about things they would otherwise not have known without robbing them of their character, culture, or human faculties.  Even so, often the meaning or the outcome of the things they wrote about was not clear to them.

I believe the Bible to be what it says it is.  The Word of God.  But believing this and living it are two very different things.  I think the best evidence there is for the unbeliever is a changed can present as many "proofs" as you will, but if your life does not show that what you believe is better than what someone else believes, you might as well spit into the wind...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Biblical Christianity in African Perspective - O'Donovan (Question)

As you can tell by now, I am really enjoying O'Donovan's book: Biblical Christianity in African Perspective...

O'Donovan has a number of serious discussion questions at the end of chapter one.  There are no simple answers - especially when one tries really hard not to be arrogant or obnoxious (a hard one for many believers) and to frame the answer in a way that the questioner will be able to comprehend given their own world-view.  Here's the first question:

How would you answer a person...who said, "All roads lead to God since he created the world and all that is in it.  It doesn't matter which religion you follow as long as you are sincere."

Biblical Christianity in African Perspective - O'Donovan

Chapter One:  Who and what are we to believe?

In this chapter O'Donovan asks six basic questions.

A.  What does it mean to believe in something or someone?
Belief is a form of trust which is informed by what we learn and which ultimately governs our actions.  These actions show confidence in the ability or the power of the person or thing trusted.
O'Donovan counsels:  "If you are wise you will only put your trust in someone who has given evidence of being worth of your trust." (8)
This leads to the next question.

B.  What is truth?
He says, "Truth is a statement of what is real or what is right as compared with what is false or what is wrong.  Truth is a statement about the ultimate realities of life."  (9)

C.  Where can we find the truth?
Of course the question then arises, is there any way we can be sure that what we believe is, in fact, the truth?

O'Donovan points out that while all teachers and teachings claim to teach the truth  Jesus said that He was the embodiment of all that is true.  "I am the Truth," He said.  But is there a way to test His claims?O'Donovan says that a good test of character is to see whether or not the person lives for the good of others or uses their power for the good of others.

O'Donovan then compares Jesus with a number of other religious teachers.  Jesus was born of a virgin and He alone lived a sinless life.  Even the Quran agrees with this in Sura 4:171.  Everything He did throughout His life and even in His death was for the good of others.
C. S. Lewis examined the life and claims of Jesus from three different angles.  Was He a liar?  Was He a lunatic?  Or was He who He claimed to be: the Lord of all?  An examination of Jesus words and deeds shows that He was not a liar nor a lunatic and therefore we only have the third option left.
While other teachers taught people how to live, Jesus showed them how to live.  He led a model and exemplary life.
O'Donovan rightly says that if one want to know the truth of a person's words, one needs to listen to what his enemies have to say about him.  He says, "The statements of Christ's enemies are some of the strongest proofs in history that Jesus really did perform great miracles of love and power to help people." (12)
Considering all the facts leads us to believe that Jesus is who He says He is and is therefore worthy of being followed.

D.  How does what we believe affect our actions?
There is a direct relationship between what we believe and how we act.  What you believe about God, man, life, sin, sickness, tragedy, and death will be shown in the way you live your life.

E.  What will happen when you believe the truth and what will happen when you believe what is false?
O'Donovan tells the story of how a doctor bled George Washington to death because, at the time doctors believed that, as the sickness was in the blood, one got rid of it by bleeding the patient!

F.  Who are we to believe?
We have to answer the question:  When we compare all the faiths of this world, who has the truth and who is worthy of our trust?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Biblical Christianity in African Perspective - O'Donovan

I'm (re)reading an excellent book by Wilbur O'Donovan, Biblical Christianity in African Perspective (Paternoster Press, 1996).  It has been a while so I feel like I'm reading it for the first time and I can only wonder if I was as excited reading it then as I am now.

In the introduction, O'Donovan lists five questions we need to answer if we are to build a Christian theology from an African perspective.  Here are the questions and my summaries of his answers.

A.  What is the meaning of world-view?
      A world-view is basically the way in which a person understands and interprets life.  This view is dependent on the people group a person belongs to, how they grew up, and what they learned as they were growing up.  A world-view can divide people in spite of other similarities such as language or geography.

B.  Is there really a traditional African world-view?
      The simple answer is, yes there is.  O'Donovan lists seven common elements.
      1.  An emphasis on communal life - being part of a group, tribe, and family.  There is a strong bond that
           shares a "common participation in life, a common history, and a common destiny" (4).
      2.  Part of this belonging includes those members of the group that are deceased.
      3.  A belief in a direct relationship between the spirit world and the physical world.
      4.  People and relationships mean more than material or technological things.
      5.  A history of colonialism and an experience of independence.
      6.  A more holistic view of life in which all things in life are interrelated.
      7.  A greater value on life events than on time or schedules.

C.  How do we build a theology that is biblical?
      O'Donovan outline three basic steps.
      1.  Observe and understand all the Bible has to say about a certain subject.
      2.  Understand what these statements mean through grammatical and historical situation analyses.
      3.  Apply this biblical view to every day life.

D.  What problems have been encountered in the past in trying to build a theology which is both biblical and also African?
      O'Donovan says what so many missiologists are saying today.  In the past, there were very few efforts to relate Christian theology to the African context in spite of the fact that Christianity came to Africa before it went out to the rest of the world (Acts 8:27-39).  The need is obviously to cast biblical truth in such a way that it is both "truly Christian and truly African". (5)

E.  How can we overcome the problems of the past and build a theology which is truly biblical and also truly African?
     O'Donovan says this is a three step process.
     1.  You have to make sure you understand what the (whole) Bible says about any given subject.
     2.  You have to make sure you understand how African culture relates to that particular subject.
     3.  You have to wrestle with the manner in which this biblical truth can be expressed in a way that make it
          culturally relevant so that it can be applied in daily life as something indigenous and not foreign.

#3 is called contextualization.  O'Donovan lists 9 steps needed to achieve contextualization.
1.  A clear understanding and definition of the problem of the issue at hand.
2.  A clear understanding of what the Bible says about this problem or issue.
3.  A clear understanding of what the specific culture has to say about the problem or issue.
4.  A clear understanding regarding similarities and dissimilarities between the two.
5.  A clear understanding of how what the Bible says can be applied to the particular culture.
6.  A clear understanding of how people within that culture will have to change their world-view to accept
     what the Bible teaches.
7.  A clear understanding on how people within that culture will have to change their behavior and their
     practices in order to adopt and apply what the Bible teaches.
8.  A clear understanding of what must be done to help bring about those changes.
9.  A clear understanding of what strategy needs to be used by the local church in order to bring about the
     necessary changes to deal with the problem or issue at hand.

The first chapter is entitled "Who And What Are We To Believe?" Can't wait...

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Raising Support - dirty words?

One of the things that kept Louise and me from reentering the mission field for many years can be summed up in two words:  "Raising support".  To be brutally honest, I would much rather have real live bullets whizzing over my head.  Seriously.

The books, articles, blogs, and emails I have read about fund or friend or support raising all seem to say the same thing.  Don't be shy.  People out there are waiting for you to ask them to partner with you in the calling God has on your life.

Of course, there is a biblical basis for supporting those who preach or teach or reach out to others.  The Levites were supported by Israel (Numbers 18:24), Jesus and the disciples were supported by certain women (Luke 8:2-3), those sent out by Jesus are worthy of their wages (Matthew 10:9-10), Paul was able to preach and teach more freely once support arrived from Macedonia (Acts 18:4-5), and Paul taught that the Lord had commanded that those who preach the Gospel should live from the Gospel, quoting from the Law of Moses (1 Corinthians 9:1-18).  So, why do many still feel that they are begging, or that others may think they are not a worthy investment, or that fund raising is a "necessary evil to be endured"?  And why do they feel personally rejected when the answer is "no"... or worse...when there is a thunderous silence?

Is it really just something in their heads?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Hope For Eritrea


As many of you know, Grant is the Area Bishop for the Horn of Africa, which includes, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland, Somalia, and Ethiopia.  This is a very encouraging testimony.  Interesting that his name is Yohannes...

Eritrean believer Yohannes spent a year imprisoned in a metal shipping container. This is his story... He says, “When I was going through this experience of being in prison, I was always considering that God is on my side. And I was always praying so that He can give me favour in front of those who tormented me, and I asked God, ‘Forgive them.’ I don’t have any bitterness or hatred towards these people. As to me, the hope for Eritrea is Jesus. I believe that so many people from this small nation will be missionaries to reach out to these Arab nations surrounding us.” Praise God for the extraordinary faithfulness of Christians in Eritrea. Please SHARE.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Book Review: Humble Orthodoxy by Joshua Harris

Book Review:  Humble Orthodoxy by Joshua Harris
Most people still remember the children’s riddle:
Question:  “What did the Big Firecracker say to the little Firecracker?” 
Answer:  “My pops bigger than yours.”
This applies to this small book by Harris.  In many ways it delivers a big bang.  Not that there is anything new in the content.  We find the same plea in the New Testament, both in the Gospels and in the Epistles.  Also, in the Early Church, prompting Augustine to write:  “In essentials, unity; in non essentials, liberty, in all things, charity.” 
In all things, charity.  In a sense this is what Harris is urging us, his readers, to do.  You do not have a corner on the truth…you are as blind and as fallible as the next person…so exercise restraint when slamming your fist on the table of doctrinal discussion.  “If we live with a heart of compassion and humility,” Harris writes on page 59, “the Holy Spirit can use that to draw people to God.” 
But what delivers the big bang is the simplicity, the readability, and the brevity of this book.  These three elements make this book accessible to many who would otherwise not take a second look.  While the truth of the content matter is profound, Harris presents it in a way that all may, not only grasp his point, but also take the theory and put it into practice.  The Study Guide in the back of the book helps with this necessary application phase. 
There was only one thing that bothered me…while Harris does mention Paul’s possible desire to apologize to Barnabas and John Mark on page 56, he missed the opportunity to show the growth of humility in this man who had once allowed the arrogance of his past as a Pharisee to dictate how he dealt with, not only Barnabas and Mark, but also with Peter in the issue with the Galatians.  This would have presented a ray of hope to those who, like me, have struggled for years to see the beam in my own orthodox eye.
"I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review."
About the Author
Joshua Harris is senior pastor of Covenant Life in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He is the best-selling author of Dug Down Deep: Building Your Life on Truths That Last and several books on relationships, including the run-away bestseller, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He and his wife, Shannon, have three children. Find out more at