Rediscovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Heiser’s Free Book)

Michael Heiser, The Naked Bible, is offering the first draft of his book FREE (329 pages) Subtitle: Rediscovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. I’ve really enjoyed the preface.

…My life has been spectacularly mundane…It‘s kind of like watching It’s a Wonderful Life…looking back I see the ordinary deeds of steadfast friends and passing acquaintances, frivolous remarks that provided unintended clarity…providence.

I’m a big fan of God acting in the mundane. Heiser continues:

…I came to suspect that the key to understanding [difficult] texts—and really the entire biblical revelation—was to approach them the way the ancients would have on their own terms. People who claim to be serious about the Bible often expend a lot of energy talking about how it needs to be interpreted in context—but then turn around and filter it through their own traditions. The context for correctly understanding the Bible is not…(p. 6)

…After reading the Old Testament and other ancient material from the biblical period closely, I discovered a number of items that didn‘t jive with traditional ways of formulating biblical theology. I had to make a choice. Was I willing to side with the Bible when its own content, illumined by a deep knowledge of the ancient world in which God moved people to produce it, deviated from what I had been taught in my modern evangelical context? Again, a special grace compelled me to think that choosing the Bible wasn‘t going to hurt my faith. God was the same God then as he is now. I wasn‘t going to understand the text by making its writers fit into molds created by theologians who lived centuries after its creation and who worked without access to its ancient cultural context. The Bible would be okay, and so would I.(p. 6).

…. I can say with confidence is that you‘ll never look at your Bible the same way again. And while we‘re on that subject, I need to say a few things about what the Bible is and isn‘t…. (p. 7)

Introduction: “The Bible–How Much Do You Really Believe It?”

…we aren‘t as open to the supernatural as we think we are. Many Christians are supernaturalists who think like skeptics. Ask yourself what would be going through your mind if a Christian friend confided in you one day that they believed they had been helped by a guardian angel, or that they audibly heard a disembodied voice warning them of some unforeseeable danger, or that they had seen an image of Jesus in some moment of crisis…

…our modern, rationalistic evangelical sub-culture has trained us to think that our theology precludes these experiences or this kind of contact. [Yes, Heiser recognizes abuse and excess.] (p. 11).

Whether we want to admit it or not, since we live in a modern scientific age, we are prone to think these kinds of experiences are misinterpretations of some other happenstance, or something that is treatable with the right medication. We would think it absolutely unwarranted to insist on scientific evidence for the virgin birth, insisting that faith is required. Why then do many Christians call on academic SWAT teams to explain away other ―weird passages? Aren‘t those important? Does acceptance of the supernatural extend only to the items referenced in creeds and confessions?

Think of this book as my offer to drive you home to the faith (13)

 Download his FREE book and enjoy. You may find it as fascinating as I did just to click (skim) through the entire document for the big picture.

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I. Howard Marshall – A Pocket Guide to New Testament Theology (Free E-Book)

Biblical Studies.org is offering a Pocket Guide to New Testament Theology by I. Howard Marshall as a free e-book (also available for your ipad or epub reader).

Check out other resources at Biblical Studies.org while you are there. One of our favorites is the 10 hour Spiritual Formation (mp3 downloads) by Dr. John Coe. (It can be a bit slow going at the very beginning, but the implications of his ultimate point can be lifechanging.) [The link on their homepage appears to be broken right now, hopefully, it will be back up soon.]

For other great links, scroll down my Links of the Day on the left hand side of this blog.

Theological discourse: tiptoeing through minefields or gallivanting across expansive prairies?

It’s hard to be an “in process” person when the stakes can be so high. Raw, unfiltered thoughts risk ostracizing you from the community you know and love or risk compromising credibility—both to potential opponents and present friends who have stricter boundaries. Sometimes, I feel like the more I learn, the less I can say publicly. There’s always the potential for a concerned citizen or a policing “bulldog” to latch on to something I’ve said or posted on a blog in the past and effectively minimize or jeopardizes everything else I am about.

We all have our “heresies.” If you are having trouble recognizing yours, I’m fairly confident that within about 15 minutes, I could help you become aware of some majorly inconsistent core belief you have which is likely rooted in a cultural idea or a church tradition over a neglected Scriptural principle…or where you deny equally prominent church traditions simply because they don’t fit what you want to believe. (And that’s probably okay.)

Every community has their litmus tests—conservative evangelicals and liberals alike—buzzwords that carry deep meanings and ideas that help differentiate “who’s in and who’s out.” In my own life that set of boundaries has shifted in almost every place I’ve lived: from Continue reading

The Western Captivity of African Christianity (Black)

UPDATE: Onesimus Online no longer exists.

Yesterday I introduced Bill Black’s blog, Onesimus Online, but I thought his posts related to The Western Captivity of African Christianity deserved a little more attention (especially for those of you that are skimming titles; I see Eddie beat me to it ;-).

… however well-intentioned our motives, we Western missionaries in general, and Western theological educators in particular, are engaged in nothing less than the colonization of the African church on a massive scale.

When the British sent out their surveyors across the savannahs and forests of Africa to map out their newly claimed territories, their apologists sold it in part as a vast humanitarian project to bring the ‘Three Cs’ of Christianity, Civilization and Commerce, as David Livingstone put it, to the poor benighted negroes of Africa. Of course the unquestioned assumption was…The resulting mess has completely warped African reality at every level and in every direction and will likely never be undone.

We missionary types don’t seem to have learned very much from the past two centuries of experience, because we are insisting on doing the very same things in our own spheres of influence. Oh, but we have the best of motives (for the Lord and the advance of his kingdom!). And who could ever accuse us of racism? We are all about partnership, all about taking into consideration the [fill in the blank with Kenyan, Ethiopian, Nigerian, etc] context, all about project sustainability, all about reducing dependency, all about working ourselves out of a job, raising up African leaders, etc, etc. We are up on the latest trends in globalization, we go to all the international conferences on servant leadership (whatever that means)…

…. my job is to teach Africans what the Evangelical [and thus ‘right’] position is for whatever the Bible addresses. But in doing so, I’m forced to make my African students into proper North American Evangelicals [one could just as easily insert ‘Presbyterian’ or ‘Reformed Baptist’ or ‘Pentecostal’ or ‘Methodist’].

…Not only are we forcing Western Evangelical categories on African students as the measure of all that’s true in the world, but we have simply assumed that our model of theological education itself is the baseline for all subsequent thinking on the matter…

…We theological educators in Africa are doing a bang-up job of reproducing North American Evangelicals for Africa, replete with our ways of thinking about and practicing Christianity. But in doing so, I’m not at all certain that we are either being true to New Testament Christianity or engaging effectively with the people of this continent as they really are…

Read the whole post: The Western Captivity of African Christianity

And again, (The Erosion of Inerrancy?)

…the fights (theological and hermeneutical) that have set the boundaries assumed sacrosanct by our best North American Evangelicals (or even British, though there is a huge difference even here) seem increasingly irrelevant over here.

…with the explosion of Christianity in Africa, Latin America and Asia, these presuppositions are increasingly exposed for what they are – presuppositions that unnaturally and unnecessarily limit what is understood as appropriate, to what is understood as appropriate if you have grown up in the West and been trained at one of its leading theological institutions. For that reason, systematic theology, for example, is difficult to teach in my present context as anything more than what certain Evangelicals understood at a particular time given their particular intellectual and religious contexts. To attempt to dress up Kenyan Christians in Evangelical clothes is attempt what the British did by insisting that Kenyans must adopt trousers, shirt and tie in order to appear civilized (never mind that…

…Africans can certainly wear western-style clothes, but we got to this point as a result of a certain amount of cultural imperialism that did violence to already existing cultures and perspectives. Anyway, the idea that the traditional Evangelical doctrine is eroding amongst Evangelicals may be true in the West, or at least a more or less valid observation. Our needs and concerns on this side of the world make such word play seem like yet another Western game. Playing ‘your’ game is a luxury ‘we’ can no longer afford. Anyone interested in playing our game?

And yesterday, What is your Game?

…Salvation too often means getting Africans to accept that our problems are their problems and that our solutions must be their solutions. For example, most Western missionaries assume that Christ has come to save us from our legal problem before a holy God; namely…

…while Western missionary Christianity misses the mark in terms of addressing African realities, the New Testament itself, along with the earliest expressions of Christianity as it spread throughout the Roman world, engages the pre-modern world view with dramatic and life-changing answers.

Eddie Arthur, Wycliffe Bible Translators, has a nice 14 minute video on the topic of missions, culture, contextualization, and African theologies (see also this post for more links).

Eddie Arthur of Wycliffe Bible translators talks about the importance and implications of contextualising the Gospel.

Onesimus Online: a blog to stir your thinking (Bill Black)

UPDATE: Onesimus Online no longer exists.

Ask any of Bill Black’s students here about him, and they will probably say: “he provokes; he really challenges us to think.”   Thankfully, for the rest of us, Bill blogs at Onesimus Online: history, theology, culture, the church, and other dangerous stuff. If you are at all interested in theology, theological education in Africa, global Christianity, missions, evangelicalism, American cultural Christianity, and other related topics, you might enjoy his blog–and having your thinking provoked and deepened. I know Bill appreciates the broader dialog.  Bill and his wife are both pastors, graduates of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, PhDs from Cambridge, and teachers here at NEGST.  Previously, they taught in Ethiopia. Plus, they are a lot of fun to talk to;  I’ve learned a lot from them.

Here are a few “sound bytes” from some of Bill’s posts to whet your appetite:

The passing of evangelicalism

…We Western Evangelicals thought we were the center of the Christian universe, only to discover that the glory seems to have departed and moved south to Africa, Latin America and Asia. Those tongues-speaking, hallelujah-shouting, other-side-of-the-tracks-dwelling so-called Pentecostals, even more derisively labeled as ‘holy rollers’ by the upstanding Christians in my home church who, of course, knew better, have become the most explosive force in the global expansion of Christianity ever. There is not a single individual person in my systematic theology class who would not identify themselves as either Pentecostal or Charismatic. On the ‘mission field’ at least, the old paradigms of missionary Christianity are in the process of being leap-frogged entirely. ..
…Anyway, the point of all of this is that things have changed. Radically. Decisively. The old verities and polarities don’t work anymore (if they ever did). The systems and structures which we created to manage the world as we knew it are being pressed into service beyond their capacity to cope. This is not a call to somehow change Evangelicalism. It’s actually too late for that. Its day has passed and cannot be recovered. Instead, …

A Plea for Civility, Sanity and Integrity in Theological/Political Debate (3 personal examples)

Theology is not safe:

…there is another reason why I am undertaking this blog. Theology is a dangerous thing. Theology that attempts to reduce God to what I can understand about God is an attempt to tame God. But the God revealed in the Christian Scriptures is untamable. Our Western theological traditions, both Catholic and Protestant, are attempts to mount God onto a specimen board, attempts to dissect and label God’s constituent parts, attempts to deduce divine physiology from divine structure. But efforts to catalogue the parts fails to apprehend the whole. Our orthodoxies miss the point…

…This blog then is becoming increasingly like my own incident at the fords of the Jabbok, my own wrestling with the one who refuses to be named and categorized…

The Western Captivity of African Christianity

…Not only are we forcing Western Evangelical categories on African students as the measure of all that’s true in the world, but we have simply assumed that our model of theological education itself is the baseline for all subsequent thinking on the matter…

…We theological educators in Africa are doing a bang-up job of reproducing North American Evangelicals for Africa, replete with our ways of thinking about and practicing Christianity. But in doing so, I’m not at all certain that we are either being true to New Testament Christianity or engaging effectively with the people of this continent as they really are…

Brain tumors, theological education and the church

The human brain is an unimaginably complex piece of work…Though my extended parable may be like the tumor it describes – a malignant profusion of words that obliterates the intended purpose – the purpose itself remains. The concern of this post is with theological education as it is actually practiced, especially at the higher levels, and its relationship with the church it’s intended to serve. My concerns come from my own experience as one who has benefitted from theological education and who has gone on to serve several churches in a professional ministerial capacity, and from my observations of theological education in actual practice…

…I think there are likely a number of reasons contributing to this fundamental dysfunction in our churches. First,…

….The breathtaking irony of all this is, having created such an institutionalized system for training our leaders (the theological education industry), a system that has succeeded in taking us further and further afield from that which Christ is calling us to be, we heedlessly presume our institutional model to be the most effective way to train Nigerians or Indians or Chinese or Ethiopians for the ministry…

Africa, Spiral Logic, Systematic Theology, and the Perils of Theological Education

The Indefensible Evangelical Habit of Shooting Our Wounded

Last week there was a gun battle outside our gate. Four gangsters had hijacked cars and shot drivers and the authorities finally caught up with them just over the fence from my house. In the ensuing firefight, two of the carjackers were killed outright, one escaped over the fence (and through my garden!), and the fourth lay wounded on the road…

Believers Baptism vs. Infant Baptism, Must it Matter?

Evangelicalism Inc.

…Not only are the Western Prosperity gods raking it in, but developing-world prosperity-god-wannabees are trying desperately to get in on the cash…Dare I even mention the Evangelical publishing industry, which seems to have taken on the role of God in conservative academic and popular religion circles, raising up this one and ignoring that one, and on the grounds of whether or not it is ‘marketable’. I can’t imagine Jeremiah being able to secure a publishing contract from this crowd…

…Then there are the incredibly large and wealthy Christian aid organizations poised globally to respond immediately to the latest front page disaster and who must raise gazillions of dollars not only to feed the starving, but to buy the planes and Toyota land cruisers and computers and iPhones and Blackberries and pay the travel fees for all the conferences and meetings and consultations that must happen in the background for the hungry to be fed…

Does this bother anybody else?

…I do not deny the good intentions of most (I hope) of my fellow Christians involved in these so-called ‘ministries’. But I can’t help but thinking that we Evangelicals have become like addicts hooked on methamphetamine. We’ve got to have more, more, more. We’ve got to be successful, or at least appear successful, because if we are or appear so, more people will be drawn to our ‘ministry’ which will make us all the more successful. But like the meth addict, this stuff is destroying us…We dare not take a genuinely prophetic stance on anything, because if we do, someone will be offended and we will lose support. We’ve become like Ahab’s court prophets, cunningly discerning which way the wind is blowing before committing ourselves on any issue, and viciously smacking down anyone who does not toe the party line.

We Evangelicals are seriously compromised. And seriously compromised people are like salt that’s lost its savor…

And much, much MORE.

My Book

African American Theology Reconsidered; a reformed critique (Bacote B&C)

In light of some of my reflections on theologies from different cultural perspectives, my eye caught this review from Vincent Bacote in the latest issue of Books and Culture: African American Theology Reconsidered: A Reformed Critique

Recently a friend told me about an experience he and his wife had as students at a flagship evangelical seminary in the early 1980s. "The black church," one of their professors explained, "is not really a church because it does not have its own theology. Rather it’s a social organization." Presumably he was basing his judgment on the absence of systematic theology articles and books produced by historically African American denominations. My friend didn’t say whether the professor, in a moment of notable self-reflection, went on to add " … and every day when I look in the mirror I ask myself how the tradition of which I am a part effectively guaranteed that this would be the case, especially in evangelicalism," or "of course, since our theological task is to winsomely deliver the faith once delivered across all contexts, I suppose having their ‘own’ theology is not the goal for a genuinely catholic church." I doubt that is how the conversation continued at that moment or in many other places where the same assumption has reigned as "a simple matter of historical fact."

While a search for tomes of Christian dogmatics written by African American theologians may yield little, Thabiti M. Anyabwile discovered that there is a much richer theology in the history of the African American church than one might expect. In The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity, Anyabwile introduces us to figures such as Jupiter Hammon, Lemuel Haynes, and Olaudah Equiano and makes us more aware of the theology of the poet Phyllis Wheatley and the theology which was woven throughout slave narratives. Turning the spotlight on these figures presents the opportunity to write African American theology into the story of Christian theology in the United States. This is important, as it is unlikely that most students of theology at evangelical colleges and seminaries will learn that Hammon and Haynes were contemporaries of figures such as George Whitefield and John Wesley. The theology we discover is neither novel nor distinctively African American—that is not the point…

After a serious critique of the book, Bacote adds,

…Anyabwile argues that we must be careful about how we think of the relationship between Christianity and cultural influences. He charges that the trends he deplores have been "shaped more by historical and cultural practice than by Scripture," yet he seems unaware that he must in turn ask himself if he is accepting certain Western (Reformed) cultural norms as biblical.

Finally, when it comes to the reason for the decline itself, I am curious as to why Anyabwile leaves out the biggest culprit of all: America. In a country that has privileged innovation and elevates the individual and weaves the American dream into every possible situation, is it a surprise that not only the African American church but the U.S. church in general is better acquainted with consumerism than with Scripture?

The afterword briefly offers suggestions for reversing the decline. Recentering the Bible, re-exalting God, recovering the gospel, and revitalizing the church are emphases most would champion. Here, however, one finds indications that Anyabwile desires the African American church to become a kind of "truly Reformed" church if it is to find its way. As a neo-Calvinist myself, I am warm to the legacy of Calvin, but I find it dubious to suggest the use of the "regulative principle of worship." Every tradition has had its debates about how the Bible instructs us to worship God, and I am unconvinced that introducing the regulative principle (a subject of ongoing debate within the Reformed tradition) will be much help, especially to those who are self-consciously in other streams of the faith.

My concerns aside, I am thankful to Anyabwile for helping to initiate a much-needed conversation. This book puts African Americans back into the story of Christian theology, and we must continue bringing to light the contributions of those so long disregarded.

Vincent Bacote, African American Theology Reconsidered: A Reformed Critique, Books and Culture (Sept 2009)

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Systemic challenges facing African theologians

Following are some of my own observations about some of the systemic challenges my colleagues face in trying to do genuine African theology—dialogue between African cultures and the world of the Bible. (My experience has been largely with evangelical institutions, but many of the principles might apply more broadly.) Please feel free to add some of your own observations.

[no particular order; numbered to facilitate comments]

  1. Almost all formal theological training is done in the West or by Western-trained African theologians who have been indoctrinated to Western priorities and methodologies. (All of us are shaped by our mentors, and our mentors are shaped by their environments.)
  2. Many theological schools in Africa tend to depend on resources are being doled out by Western institutions with Western interests.
  3. African thinkers are forced to write for Western audiences in order to gain academic credibility and get published.
  4. Whereas Western theologians have the luxury of being able to be essentially mono-cultural, successful African theologians (who wish to be published) have to have a sophisticated mastery both Western and African thought patterns and ways of communicating.
  5. Many of the best and brightest African academic pioneers have been snatched up by western institutions where they are forced to spend most of their time catering to white American audiences and explaining Africa to them (e.g. Sanneh, Tienou, Katongole).
  6. In any theological institution there are already strong, established feelings about “how theology should be done.”
  7. Evangelicals, especially, are very nervous about any new ways of doing theology.
  8. Specific denominational dogmas are so sacrosanct that all we can do is regurgitate acceptable “truth” (from the teaching vessel to the recipient student and hope it doesn’t experience any corruption in the process.)
  9. Seminary and Bible school programs and curriculums in Africa are almost exactly the same as their Western counterparts. (Accreditation is a factor, but not the only factor.)
  10. Africa is often perceived by and portrayed to outsiders as a dark, poverty-stricken, crisis-ridden continent. (What could it possibly have to offer?)
  11. The fear of syncretism—Christo-paganism. (While this might be a genuine concern in a few, rare cases, the fear of this extreme should not prevail.)
  12. Many of the most successful African academics are not in touch with their own traditional cultural heritage; they may not even speak their own mother tongues, which could help shape their theological thinking.
  13. Creative African theology is not given very much institutional priority in terms of grants and infrastructure support that frees African thinkers with the resources, freedom, and focused time to pursue research and writing African theology.
  14. The sheer number and diversity of different African cultures can be overwhelming.
  15. Genuine African theology requires cross-disciplinary expertise. In addition to the biblical studies expertise needed to understand the Bible in its original cultural context, ethnographic research along with anthropological and sociological analysis are needed to help immerse the theologian in different African cultural worldviews. (Doubles and triples the fields of academic expertise required.)
  16. We don’t have access to that many models of how African theology can be done. In some ways we keep going back to the same few pioneers who laid the groundwork; new creative efforts need to be encouraged.
  17. The younger, brilliant African theologians I know here are too busy addressing pressing community needs—pastoring churches, running NGOs, doing administration, working to change political leadership, etc. The ones that do teach in academic institutions tend to be teaching course overloads and are buried in administration—in addition to all the normal community pressures.

I recognize that this portrait risks severe caricature, but perhaps it will stir some of your ideas. Catholics seem to have done a far better job of supporting African scholarship (most of the books on my shelf related to African theology—written by both Protestants and Catholics—are published by Catholic presses), but in practice, they seem to have institutional and hierarchical challenges that many Protestant churches wouldn’t.

Cf. bibliography for African Christianity or (by date) or the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (e.g. Musa Dube, Nyambura Njoroge, Mercy Ouyoye, Isabel Phiri, etc.) for more African theologizing.