January 28, 2008

The New Faces of Christianity 3: Old and New

Today the ACFAR Network continues reading through The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South by Philip Jenkins. If you haven't bought the book or signed up yet, it is not too late to join! This week we are discussing chapter 3: "Old and New."


Jenkins continues to differentiate between the Christianity of the West and the Christianity of the Global South by examining how each treats the Old Testament. The Western world tends to minimize the place of the Old Testament with many liberals accepting the New Testament as Christian Scripture but conceding the Old Testament to Judaism. Our societies are so far removed from what we read before the Gospels that we relegate this section of the Bible to an ancient and bygone era.

No such cultural distance exists for those in the Global South as they encounter the Old Testament. There are obvious parallels between their own societies and those of the Old Testament. From polygamy to animal sacrifice, rituals and practices found in the Bible are well-known and recognized by many African and Asian Christians.

Consequently, modern Christians in the Global South (especially in Africa) see a direct link between themselves and Old Testament Jews. Some believers practice the rules and customs found in the Old Testament, including the dietary laws and a Saturday Sabbath. Furthermore, there are Christians in Africa that consider their history as their own Old Testament. African traditional religion was a predecessor to Christ.

Thus the Old Testament is cherished by Southern Christians and they often feel at home in its pages. They also appreciate passages and books of the Bible that are often overlooked by Christians in the West. Hebrews is popular with its focus on priesthood and the sacrificial system as well as Revelation with its symbols of the lamb, the blood, the animals, and the dead still living in the afterlife. Old Testament ideas of prophecy are important as are wisdom literature like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the New Testament letter of James.

With the Global South's reverence for the Old Testament, believers will often apply its truths in the political realm. The maintenance of a godly nation requires its people to be righteous. Christianity is not just about personal salvation but corporate well-being. Many Bible readings and sermon texts focus on these themes.

As a result, we find a large divide between Christians in the West and the South in their treatment of the Old Testament. For Southern believers, all of Scripture is given by God for His people, and the Old Testament cannot be minimized.

My Thoughts

Once again, I appreciate the commitment of Christians in the Global South in their commitment to the Word of God. They are right to reject the liberal attempts to discard the Old Testament. At the same time, God's revelation is progressive and the Old Testament must be understood in light of the New. I am deeply concerned when Jenkins quotes Bengt Sundkler as saying, "In some quarters, the differences between the Old and New Testament standards are felt as a problem, and where this is so, the Old Testament standard in generally accepted" (50). Christ fulfills the Old Testament, and His coming brought an end to the types and shadows that pointed to Him. Identifying too closely with the Old Testament prevents Christians from recognizing the newness of the New Covenant that our Savior sealed in His blood. What is desperately needed throughout the Global South is growth in proper biblical interpretation (hermeneutics).

I also found the direct connection often made between African history and the Old Testament troubling. Israel played a unique role in God's unfolding of salvation history. While finding parallels between cultures is fine, moving beyond this to embracing traditional religion as Africa's Old Testament is simply wrong. Jenkins notes:
Such a comprehensive approach ideally draws believers to Christianity, allowing the faith to make free use of traditional symbols and rituals, albeit in converted and Christianized form. Yet critics also urge that such borrowings raise the danger of compromise or pollution, creating in effect not a stronger indigenous Christianity, but a syncretistic religion that has more in common with pagan animism than with anything authentically Christian (52-53).

These critics are right to be worried. Christianity must not be compromised through the improper incorporation of traditional beliefs and practices.

Your Turn

What do you think? Your thoughts do not have to be profound or anything. Please feel free to contribute to the discussion!