Volume 5.1 / Jesus as Prototokos in Hebrews and the African Phenomenon of Eldest Brother: an Analysis of a Potential Illustration
Share

Article

Jesus as Prototokos in Hebrews and the African Phenomenon of Eldest Brother: an Analysis of a Potential Illustration

Travis L. Myers
ABSTRACT
This article succinctly exposits the meaning of Jesus as “firstborn” (prototokos) in Hebrews 1:6 before explaining the cultural phenomenon of “eldest brother” found in many sub-Saharan African cultures. It then examines both the potential benefits and liabilities of using that concept for communicating the biblical meaning of Christ as firstborn in Hebrews. In so doing, the author hopes to promote the explication of Christian doctrine in “the language of Africa” for the edification of the church there and, at the same time, facilitate greater understanding of Christology on the part of North Americans like himself. The article integrates the disciplines of New Testament studies, hermeneutics, Biblical Theology, anthropology, religious studies, pedagogy, inter-cultural communication, and missiology. It aims to model sound principles of biblical interpretation as well as the careful and appropriate contextualization of biblical doctrine in both the way it is explained and pastorally applied. It both exemplifies and explicitly encourages the potential that expat Christians teachers and other ministers have, as cultural learners, to mediate understanding and insight among various members of the global body of Christ.

1. An Anglo-American in Cameroon

A person’s immersion into a different cultural context can, of course, give him or her a new lens through which to interpret the Scriptures.[1] By becoming a new missionary faculty member of the Cameroon Baptist Theological Seminary in February 2003, I was "baptized” into an African context that seemed in many ways polar opposite to my own North American, Midwestern, middle class, Anglo culture. Because of that wonderful experience, certain strange behaviors in the patriarchal narratives of the Pentateuch became comprehendible and new possible connotations for certain Christological terms presented themselves during my reading of the Pauline epistles and the book of Hebrews. For example, the Cameroonian emphases on outward displays of respect for elders and persons of authority, careful attention to interpersonal courtesy and social protocol, a deep sense of group identity and familial responsibilities, as well as the extreme priority of hospitality were all obvious components of my new African environment and its people. It was a new awareness of the status, privileges and responsibilities of each family's eldest son and brother that seemed to enable a fresh and more deeply theological insight into the meaning of Jesus Christ as the "firstborn" (prōtotokos).[2]

I was tasked to teach a course on the book of Romans in English. The apostle Paul states in Romans 8:29 that God's predestination of the elect to conformity to the image of his Son is for the purpose of his Son becoming "the firstborn among many brothers and sisters." Whereas previously in my study of that passage the word "many" read loudest in my mind, seeming to emphasize the quantitative extent of God's saving work in Christ, now the word "firstborn" shouted for priority in the meaning of this text. The former interpretation was shown for its anthropocentrism. A new theocentric reading seemed to lie before me. Could Paul be stating here that the goal of God's salvation of "many" is the qualitative magnification of Jesus' consequent status as the eldest brother of an expansive family? Knowing that the Bible consistently indicates the ultimate goal of our salvation to be the glory of God in and through Christ,[3] I suspected that I was on to something good in this newly acquired African[4] nuance of pre-understanding and interpretation.

2.  On Culture, Pre-Understanding, Hermeneutics, and Contextualization

We must humbly guard against allowing our theological systems and cultural assumptions to become ultimately determinate in biblical interpretation. Pre-understanding that refuses to be corrected by new observations or knowledge only serves to corrupt and distort the interpretation of any new data acquired. That prohibits any actual growth in understanding as well as the potential practical implementation of any new understanding.[5] To interpret the Bible with intellectual integrity and practical benefit we must consistently submit our theological and semantic pre-understanding to our best exegetical interpretation of the biblical texts, allowing both our presuppositions and previous conclusions to be challenged and changed by this authoritative Word from God in this kind of “hermeneutical spiral.” This paper is an attempt to obtain a better understanding of the Scriptures—and of the Christ to whom they bear testimony[6]—by implementing a certain aspect of another culture's worldview into my situational and semantic pre-understanding.

My goal is to enable a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the person and work of Christ. I aim to do that by contributing to the North American reader's understanding of one of the concepts and terms used in reference to Christ by the biblical authors. I want to explore the possibility of using the African culture's understanding of the eldest son and brother as an illustration of what the authors intended to communicate of Christ in referring to him as "firstborn." I will assess the possible insights provided by a particular cultural context while keeping the concepts and categories of that culture in their proper place relative to and merely illustrative of the unique and unchanging substance of special revelation. Components of African or North American culture can serve as limited illustrations of biblical concepts and categories where appropriate but should never "become the substance out of which Christian theology is grounded."[7]

In other words, my goal is to examine both the potential dangers and usefulness of employing the African eldest brother concept in illustrating the biblical meaning of prōtotokos in reference to Christ. In so doing I hope to promote the articulation of Christian doctrine in "the language of Africa"[8] without confusing or compromising biblical fidelity for the sake of two worthy ends: the edification of the church in Africa and the edification of the church in the world. I desire to promote an international theological discussion, or rather "feast." I desire, in the words of John Mbiti, to help my US American brethren "eat theology" with our African brothers and sisters.[9] As D.A. Carson suggests, Christians of various cultures ought to be learning from and corrected by one another as we together submit to the common authority of God's Word while seeking a shared understanding of its teaching and right application in our respective contexts. In this sense, every cultural group within the universal church should "do theology" not only for its own sake but also for the sake of contributing to a worldwide understanding of biblical truth.[10] Harvie M. Conn, in encouraging global theological interdependence and mutuality between the majority world and the West, says, "Every church must learn to be both learner and teacher in theologizing."[11] William A. Dyrness adds, "Ephesians 4:13 looks forward to the day when 'we all attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God.' This is clearly a corporate achievement in which Christians from every culture will play a role."[12] The astute and aware Christian theologian immersed in a culture not his or her own is in a unique position to mediate these various viewpoints and insights. They are a waiter at the table of the task.[13]

3. The Book of Hebrews and the Church in Africa

Though first intrigued by the use of prōtotokos in Romans 8:29, I have chosen to reflect here upon Hebrews 1:6. The late Kwame Bediako called the book of Hebrews, with reference to other Africans, "OUR epistle." He wrote in his book Jesus in Africa, "The value for us [Africans] of the presentation of Jesus in Hebrews stems from its relevance to a society like ours with its deep tradition of sacrifice, priestly mediation and ancestral function." [14] I disagree with Bediako's conviction that the hermeneutical method employed by the author of Hebrews in relating Christ to his audience's Jewish pre-Christian experience by way of continuity and fulfillment is paradigmatic for relating Christ to African Traditional Religion(s) (ATR).[15] Yet I do agree with him that the theology and message of Hebrews has a particular poignancy for the African church and context. I will mention three reasons: 1) the anthropocentric concern of ATR with manipulating life forces and events for the sake of one's own personal welfare[16] is addressed by the epistle’s pastoral assertion that Christ is in sympathetic and sovereign control of all things experienced by Christians facing hardship;[17] 2) warnings to Christians facing persecution and pressure to return to their pre-Christian religion[18] are relevant to African Christians facing the immense social pressure to participate in ATR against their will and Christian convictions;[19] and 3) a theology of the brotherhood of Christ[20] and an emphasis on the communitarian nature of the Christian pilgrimage[21] resonates with a communal[22] African culture in which one's identity is largely familial and tribal.[23]

4. Jesus as Prōtotokos in Hebrews 1:6

In Hebrews chapter one, the author succinctly sets the stage for his unpacking of Christ's unique status and accomplishments as well as their implications for the lives of Christian people. The author's reference in verse six to Christ as the "firstborn" is a part of his pastoral and Christocentric commentary on Old Testament texts from the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. These texts are cited in support of the author's opening theme-setting assertion of Christ's eternality, his superiority over angels, his unique relation to God, and his status as reigning King.

4.1 "Firstborn"

The word prōtotokos occurs in the Septuagint some 130 times.[24] In Ancient Near Eastern culture the firstborn son received particular privileges, honor and inheritance (or “blessing”) from his father.[25] George Guthrie notes in his commentary on Hebrews (citing Ceslas Spicq) that the position of firstborn “had strong religious overtones in the consecration of the firstborn to Yahweh (e.g., Ex.13:2, 15; 22:29; Lev. 27:26; Num. 3:13). A firstborn son had a special place in the heart of his father (e.g., 2 Sam. 13:36-37; 1 Chron. 3:1), shared the father's authority, and inherited the lion's share of his property."[26]

In Bruce Malina's description of “the New Testament world” we find a similar situation in the patrilocal society of the first-century Mediterranean milieu. The firstborn son, along with his wife and children, often continued to live as a part of the mother and father's household even after his own marriage. This was a privilege not afforded the other siblings. In fact, the firstborn son usually inherited the father's house after the father's death.[27] The firstborn son enjoyed a unique relationship with the father and a unique inheritance from him. However, this special authority and inheritance of the biological firstborn son could be transferred to another son. In Genesis 25:23-34, for example, we read the Lord declared the older, Esau, would serve the younger, Jacob. Conceptually, “firstborn" does not necessarily mean the eldest son but rather connotes a unique relationship between a son and his father with attendant privileges.

When the author of Hebrews calls Christ "the firstborn" in 1:6, he is merely continuing from the first five verses the idea of Christ's appointment as royal Son and heir, an appointment in fulfillment of God's promise to David in 2 Samuel 7. Like "son" in Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14, "firstborn" here also refers to the position and privilege conferred upon Christ by God at his enthronement.[28] The author probably alludes to Psalm 89:27 by his use of “firstborn” in Hebrews 1:6 immediately following a citation of 2 Samuel 7:14 in verse 5.[29] Psalm 89 is a commentary[30] on the promises made to David by Yahweh in 2 Samuel 7. In this psalm, the promised messiah is called Yahweh's firstborn. The coming seed of David will be made the firstborn, the highest of all the kings of the earth, by Yahweh his father. An allusion to this text not only carries forward the idea of the enthronement of Jesus as Davidic King but adds the idea of his preeminence over all other thrones and powers as well. This addition supports the author's overriding intention to demonstrate the superiority of Christ over the angels. Not only is he superior over the angels and (what I call) his “companion-brothers” (Heb 1:9 and Is 61:1, 3; Heb 2:11-12 and Ps 22:22), but he is superior over every worldly authority as well.[31]

The use of prōtotokos is an allusion to an Old Testament theological theme that is rooted in its analogue in Hebrew culture. As it develops in the OT, it points (and proceeds) toward God's saving work and cosmic reign in Jesus Christ. It highlights the unique relationship between the Son and Father. It emphasizes the subsequent authority and privilege from God given to Christ after his purifying cross-work. It connotes the inheritance due him for that accomplishment as well as his consequent and ongoing status. The title “firstborn” in Hebrews 1:6 expresses the fact that Christ enjoys the unique divine favor of God the Father and rules as his king over all the earth in fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. He has been enthroned.[32]

5. The Phenomenon of Eldest Brother in Africa

Siblings in the New Testament world often enjoyed the closest of all relationships among themselves. Malina says that siblings comprised "the tightest unit."[33] He cites the common practice of discussing marital problems with brothers and sisters rather than with parents or friends. Anthropologists Emily Schultz and Robert Lavenda write that in many cultures today, especially the patriarchal ones, the most important relationships between a man and a woman are between siblings of the opposite sex. In this situation, the elder brothers and sisters usually exercise some kind of control over the junior siblings.[34] This is the experience of many Bantu Africans.

Not only does the firstborn son enjoy a privileged relationship with the father both before and after the father's death but his position among the siblings and extended family is one of respect and much responsibility. Francois Kabasélé explains that this is true in Sub-Saharan Bantu cultures because the eldest brother is the sibling and child "closest" to the ancestors by nature of his prior birth.[35] He, therefore, has the right of last word in clan reunions, reunions which he is responsible to take the initiative in calling together. His siblings and their children show him and his children deference and respect. He has the right to "ritual presents" (gifts) from his siblings and their children. In some tribes, the dowries paid for marriage to the first and second daughters of his younger brothers will be paid to him. Sometimes the first wages for the new job of a younger brother will be handed over to him. Eldest brothers are expected by communities and clans to live exemplary lives while also taking responsibility for the actions of his younger brothers and sisters.[36]  

Among at least some of the many tribes of the Northwest Province of Cameroon, the financial responsibilities of younger siblings in raising and educating their children often fall upon the eldest brother and “uncle” in the family when the parents are unable or unwilling to carry the load themselves. So, too, is the eldest brother ultimately responsible for any material expenses incurred by or reparations expected for the damage done to another person or his property by the bad conduct of a junior sibling.

While expected to live an exemplary life and shoulder these responsibilities, biologically firstborn sons who fail to do so and so disappoint the family can be replaced by another son who, though not the literal "eldest," will function as such. Benezet Bujo, in describing the ceremony to install an "eldest" son as his father's heir at his father's death, comments, "Even the youngest son may be recognized as the 'elder' son, in case he proves more experienced and judicious than his older brothers."[37] When the eldest brother dies, his position, with its attendant respect and responsibilities, is transferred to the eldest – or most experienced and judicious – surviving male sibling.

Nonetheless, because the eldest brother is perceived as closest to the ancestors and has seniority[38], he (or his firstborn son after his death) is usually chosen to function as "family head" of the extended family. The family head orders the mundane affairs of the extended family[39] and functions as the family priest and mediator between the living members and the dead.[40] Elias Kifon Bongmba, writing of the Wimbum people who are the majority people of the Ndu area where the Cameroon Baptist Theological Seminary resides and one of the largest tribes in Cameroon, explains that the family head (or "fai" in Limbum, the language of the Wimbum people) acts as religious leader of the clan, adjudicates conflicts within it and takes actions to ward off threats to it. As Bongmba explains, in protecting the family's relationships, land, and other resources, the family head is expected to use divination. He is expected to determine which traditional rituals to use in response to each threat and in order to "purify" the community of threats or the damage already done by threats.[41]

Wilfred Fon, former president of the Cameroon Baptist Theological Seminary, in describing the family life of the Nso tribe, a neighbor of the Wimbum people, in his dissertation on African Christologies, notes the "ancestral stool" reserved for the family head and upon which he sits. Fon refers to the act of installing a new family head as "enstoolment." The family head's primary responsibility, says Fon, is the unity of the family, which he calls the "greatest moral value," and which includes, at times, bringing back straying members.[42]

6. An Analysis of a Potential Illustration: Points of Contact and Potential Dangers

Kabasélé says that Christ is the "true eldest" who has not disappointed the expectations of his siblings or his Father and as a consequence was "restored and crowned" by the Father in the resurrection.[43] The issue of our own expectations and the idea that we might evaluate or judge Christ is problematic and will not be dealt with here. But we can without reservation or qualification affirm with Kabasélé that Christ's "crowning" as king was in direct result of his meeting the expectations of his Father. That fits with what is being stated in the first chapter of Hebrews. Christ was "begotten" (1:5a; Ps. 2:7), adopted as the "Son" of God (1:5b; 2 Sam. 7:14), enthroned (1:3, 8, 13) as the "firstborn" and highest king (1:6; Ps. 89:27), given the most excellent name (1:4) because of his work of making purification for sins (1:3).    

Christ did not disappoint the Father but instead became "a little lower than the angels" (2:7) for a time in order to "taste death" (2:7-9) for the sanctification of his "brothers" (2:11) and the destruction of the devil (2:14-15). So, the way Christ could be considered the eldest brother in the African sense is that his session as king or "family head" is not the result of birth order or Trinitarian ontology per se but is the consequence of his proving to be the quality of person needed for the office. Christ has received fatherly pleasure and approval in response to his righteousness fulfilling work as incarnate Son of God in time and space (i.e. Redemptive History). As a point of application: The immense biblical theological (or “canonical”) import of the terms “firstborn” and “Son” and their rootedness in cultural analogue for infused meaning, renders them indispensible in bible translation. They should also be utilized – and qualified – in discussion with Muslims about what the bible says and does not say about Jesus.

In many African families and clans, the selection of a new family head or eldest brother (in the case that the natural oldest surviving son is not fit) would be taken as a group decision. However, in Hebrews chapter two the author says it is Christ who is "not ashamed to call them brothers." The reason stated for Christ's approval of his brothers is that they have the same origin, or Father, as he does (2:11). In addition, God has given these brothers to Christ (2:13; Ps. 18:2). It was for them that he became like them (2:14, 17), on assignment as their "sanctifier" (2:11) and in service to the Father who gave his Son such a “household” to oversee (3:2-8).

Kabasélé affirms Christ as the "true eldest" in the above way while discussing the African firstborn's role as exemplar. The eldest brother is to set a pattern of living for his "followers" (the term for junior brothers and sisters in Anglophone Cameroon). The author of Hebrews points his readers to Christ as the supreme example of one who has completed the race of faith in obedience to the Father who set the race before him (12:1-4). The junior brothers and sisters who follow him and run the race also set before them are to look to Christ (12:2) and "consider" his example (12:3). He persevered with trust and hope in God through undeserved shame and hostility and they should do likewise. In fact, the suffering being endured by the subject-siblings of Christ is discipline designed by God their Father to make them share in the holiness of Christ (12:7-10).

In 12:1-4 we find Christ’s status as exemplar added to that of firstborn king and articulated in conjunction with it by the epistle’s author. I believe this is an instance of what William Lane calls "orchestrated Christology." Lane explains, "Individual motifs and constructs are readily recognizable, but they flow into one another so adroitly that the consideration of a dominant motif invariably involves simultaneously the consideration of secondary and tertiary themes that are introduced in concert with the dominant motif."[44] Not only is the Christology of Hebrews thick and multi-faceted, but the various facets are sounded together like an orchestra. Many individual parts are arranged to produce a fuller integrated and harmonious whole. This theological phenomenon attests to the uniqueness and fullness of Christ. We need not exclude the work/role of Christ as exemplar from Christ’s identity as firstborn (at least in the theology of the book of Hebrews). So, the African concept of eldest brother is a fitting illustration in this regard. That said, the person who knows and enjoys the music of the orchestra most is the one who, while hearing the various instruments sounded together, can identify and appreciate the difference between an oboe and a trumpet and yet also perceives how the two, though distinct, harmonize for something better. He does not think or call an oboe a trumpet, or vice versa. The would be expositor of Hebrews should point out the author’s harmonic movement here. We should also beware of Christological reductions that fixate on a single term and concept.

Besides being an example, the Christ of Hebrews – and the African eldest brother – is also a representative who is responsible for the misconduct of his siblings. Christ is the Christian's eldest brother in the sense that he paid the penalty we incurred by our sin against the Father. He took responsibility for our offenses and bore the wrath of God in our place. Christ made "propitiation" for our sins (2:17). His payment has freed his subject-siblings from any obligation to make the payment themselves. In this way, he has also repaired the broken unity of the family. The suffering of Christ made possible, was even the means of, the Father's work in "bringing many sons to glory" (2:10). Again, it is the author's connection of Christ's redemptive suffering and his consequent enthronement as firstborn that legitimates our use of this aspect of the African eldest brother phenomenon as an illustration of prōtotokos in Hebrews 1:6.

Christ, as Family Head, acted as priest who offered up the only acceptable sacrifice for the sins of his family (8:9-10). He was the designated mediator between his siblings and God. The author of Hebrews associates Psalm 2:7 (“Son”) with Christ's appointment by God as high priest in 5:5, again "orchestrating" his Christology. There are two significant differences between Christ's work as priest and that of the African family head: 1) Christ's sacrifice was acceptable and efficacious because it was both prescribed and prepared by God; and 2) Christ's sacrifice was "once for all" (10:10): it was a "single offering" by which for all time he perfected those who are being sanctified (10:14). In this regard, Christ's high priestly work far surpasses the Levitical priesthood (chapter 7) and Mosaic Law (10:1-4) as well as the system of African Traditional Religion(s). The person using the African concept of eldest brother or family head to illustrate the Christology of Hebrews should also clearly articulate the contrast between Christ's efficacious priestly work and the repetitious inadequacy of his own culture's traditional way of coping. Pointing out where analogies break down or illustrations fail is didactic and the contrastive method is modeled for us in the book of Hebrews.

Though Christ's work of offering an acceptable and final sacrifice is finished, he continues as a mediator between God and his people. He continues as High Priest in order to make intercession for his still suffering subject-siblings (4:14-16; 7:24-25). He continues as the mediator of the new covenant between God and his people (9:15; 12:24). When drawing out this point of contact between Christ as mediating firstborn (1:6) and the African eldest brother, one should especially clarify distinctions between the nature and purposes of the respective intercessions. One draws near to the throne of grace through Christ in order to receive mercy and find grace to help in the time of need (Heb 4:16). In other words, Christ intercedes for the sake of getting grace for his followers so that they may persevere through suffering. In ATR, intercession is made primarily to escape various kinds of suffering, either by avoiding them altogether or having them removed once encountered.[45]

Christ's ongoing work as high priest and king functions to maintain family unity just as his completed work as sacrifice and priest created it (13:12). The Eldest Brother's ongoing work of intercession is for the sake of helping his followers finish the race of faith. He "is able to help those who are being tempted" (2:18). Because he has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, is a high priest through whom his followers are able to obtain mercy and "find grace to help in the time of need" (4:16). Christians can draw near to the presence of God with confidence and full assurance and are exhorted to hold fast their confession because Christ continues as their intercessor (10:19-23). He is both the founder and the perfecter of his subject-siblings’ faith (12:2). He is, in fact, the great shepherd of the sheep (13:20) who, as an eldest brother, will restore the wayward family member to the fold. Through Jesus Christ, the God who raised him from the dead equips his followers with everything good they need to do God's will, working in them that which is pleasing in his sight (13:21). The junior brothers and sisters of Christ act aptly when they completely and without complaint entrust their lives to him, when they join with the angels in the eternal worship of the mighty and merciful prōtotokos of God.

7. Conclusion

The cultural phenomenon of eldest brother in Africa seems to be as "orchestrated" as the Christology of Hebrews. The position of firstborn son in the African family carries with it a variety of interrelated responsibilities and attendant respect. This is no doubt owing to the African worldview which does not dichotomize the secular and the sacred. North Americans less familiar with the contemporary African, Ancient Near Eastern, or first century Mediterranean phenomenon of firstborn and eldest brother may be helped by this brief study to better understand and appreciate the Christology of Hebrews. Of course, this project’s ultimate aim for the church in the United States is that it might more confidently and consistently look to the Christ of Hebrews in all things because its knowledge of this portion of Scripture and of him has been expanded by a more global, multi-cultural, and biblical pre-understanding.

            Wilfred Fon has stated, "The African cup is not large enough to contain all Biblical Christology."[46] Neither is my North American Midwestern Anglo cup. Let all of us raise our cups together to more fully drink of all that God has revealed of Christ for us in his Word. And as we do, let us always be mindful that "(t)he message of the gospel must not only be expressed in the categories and world view of the local culture, it must also fill them with biblical substance and so revolutionize them."[47] We must neither reduce nor reshape biblical Christology to simply fit the contours of our respective cultures' categories (or “cups”) of pre-understanding. We must add to every receptor culture the biblical theological categories and concepts which have no contextualizing parallel within them. We must not only affirm and use existing categories for illustration and insight, but also demonstrate the inherent limitations of these categories in order to highlight the full and final, the true and better, work of Christ.[48] This is the message and methodology of Hebrews.



[1] "A culture operates as both binoculars and blinkers, helping you to see some things and keeping you from seeing others." James I. Packer, "The Gospel: Its Content and Communication—A Theological Perspective." In Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture: The Papers of the Lausanne Consultation on Gospel and Culture, ed. Robert T. Coote and John Stott (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 101.

[2] Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15,18; Hebrews 1:6; Revelation 1:5.

[3] See Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul: Apostle of God's Glory in Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001), 20-72.

[4] Though the myriad of African cultures are diverse, there are enough similarities among them to speak of an African culture. Byang Kato, Biblical Christianity in Africa. Theological Perspectives in Africa, ed. Tite Tiénou (Achimota, Ghana: Africa Christian Press, 1985), 40. Wilbur O'Donovan lists seven worldview elements shared by many African groups in Biblical Christianity in African Perspective, 2d ed. (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1996), 3-4. Cf. Diane B. Stinton, Jesus in Africa: Voices of Contemporary African Christology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004), 112-113. Stinton appeals to three prominent African theologians to justify a general discussion of African ancestral beliefs. Zairean Benezet Bujo, Cameroonian Jean-Marc Ela and Tanzanian Charles Nyamiti each testify to the widespread nature and commonality of belief regarding ancestor spirits. Likewise, Richard J. Gehman summarizes the worldview of all Sub-Saharan groups as sharing three basic elements (belief in a Supreme being, the spirit world and mystical powers), thus justifying the concept and consideration of a unified, or rather singular, African Traditional Religion. See his African Traditional Religion in Biblical Perspective (Kijabe: Kesho Publications, 1989), 10 and 30.

[5] Wilfred Fon says the goal of proper hermeneutics is to stimulate the church to move forward in its walk with the Lord. "The Influence of African Traditional Religions on Biblical Christology: An Evaluation of Emerging Christologies in Sub-Sahara Africa" (Ph. D. diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1995), 69.

[6] Lk. 24:27; Rom. 1:1-6; Heb. 1:1-2; 2:1; 1 Pet. 1:10-11.

[7] Fon, "The Influence of African Traditional Religion on Biblical Christologies," 357. Gration similarly says that culture is the context but not the source of the church. In other words, the church is not rooted in the soil but merely related to the soil. See John Gration, "African Theologies and the Contextualization of the Gospel," In Contextualization of Theology. Lectures from the course taught at Wheaton Graduate School, 1991, 2. Likewise, William Dyrness says, "For Scripture has a larger agenda than that provided by our context, and it must finally be allowed to put our concerns in their proper perspective" in How Does America Hear the Gospel? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 118.

[8] A phrase, concept, and goal per Byang Kato, Biblical Christianity in Africa, 12.

[9] Cited by Hans Visser in his Introduction to Kwame Bediako's Jesus in Africa (Waynesboro, Ga.: Paternoster Publishing, 2000), xiii.

[10] "Reflections on Contextualization: A Critical Appraisal of Daniel Von Allmen's 'Birth of Theology'," East Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology 3, no. 1 (1984): 52-53. Cf. William A. Dyrness, How Does America Hear the Gospel? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 4.

[11] Harvie M. Conn, Eternal Word and Unchanging Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 252.

[12] How Does America Hear the Gospel?, 8.

[13] Conn reminds his readers that the missiologist's task is "that of a gadfly in the house of theology…Missiology stands by to interrupt at every significant moment in theological conversations with the words 'among the nations.'" See Eternal Word and Changing Worlds, 223-224. See also Paul G. Hiebert, The Gospel in Human Contexts: Anthropological Explorations for Contemporary Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), esp. chapter 9, “Missionaries as Global Mediators.” See also various stimulating chapters in the interdisciplinary festschrift to Hiebert that was edited by Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland, Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), including the chapter by Hiebert himself titled, “The Missionary as Mediator of Global Theologizing” (288-308).

[14] His emphasis (all caps). Kwame Bediako, Jesus in Africa: The Christian Gospel in African History and Experience (Waynesboro: Paternoster Publishing, 2000), 27, 28.

[15] D.A. Carson asserts the questions raised by early Jewish believers regarding the relationship between culture and the gospel were raised not at the level of contextualization but at the level of theology, i.e. how the Old Covenant between God and Israel in particular related to the New Covenant. See his article "Reflections on Contextualization: A Critical Appraisal of Daniel Von Allmen’s ‘Birth of Theology’," in East Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology 3, no 1 (1984): 27. Old Testament Judaism, as both a religion and a culture informed by special revelation and regulated by divine covenant, stands in continuity with Christianity from an absolutely unique position. Kato argues for what I term and support as a "contextualized discontinuity" between Christianity and African Traditional Religions in Biblical Christianity in Africa. See Timothy Wiarda's "The Jerusalem Council and the Theological Task" for a survey of various theological interpretations of the Jerusalem Council's task and decision as well as the respective methodological implications of each perspective. JETS 46, no 2 (June 2003):233-248.

[16] "African Traditional Religion centres on man. The whole emphasis is upon man gaining the power needed to live a good life. Life revolves around man and his interests and needs." Richard Gehman, African Traditional Religion in Biblical Perspective (Kijabe: Kesho Publications, 1989), 50.

[17] The Son is upholding "all things" (1:2). Hebrews addresses an exaggerated angelology that by nature minimized the person and work of Christ. See J. Daryl Charles, "The Angels, Sonship and Birthright in the Letter to the Hebrews," JETS 33, no 2 (June 1990): 171. Hebrews' demonstration of the superiority of Jesus over angels has obvious implications for the church in societies preoccupied with the power of lesser spirits.

[18] Grant Osborne says these warnings (3:12; 6:6; 10:19-39) are the primary purpose of the epistle. Grant R. Osborne, "The Christ of Hebrews and Other Religions," in JETS 46, no 2 (June 2003):  265. He also points out that the suffering of Jesus is put forward as paradigmatic for the people of God, 259. George H. Guthrie says the message of Hebrews is relevant for Christians tempted to return to their pre-conversion pattern of life in his Hebrews. The NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry Muck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 34. 

[19] Gehman refers to the way family members often compel Christians to participate in the rituals of ATR in African Traditional Religion, 20. Kato likens the challenge of syncretism in the second century church and the pluralism of the New Testament context with the situation of the African church in his day. See his "A Critique of Incipient Universalism in Tropical Africa" (Th. D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1974), 260-63.

[20] Heb. 2:5-18, esp. vs. 11.

[21] Heb. 3:12-14; 10:24-25; 13:1-18. Osborne refers to the "spirit of communitas" which the audience was exhorted to find for the sake of enduring suffering together. "The Christ of Hebrews and Other Religions," 255.

[22] Kwame Gyekye, Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 36-37.

[23] O'Donovan, Biblical Christianity in African Perspective, 4. See Wilfred Fon's brief explanation of the traditional African worldview in relation to the family (41-54) and tribe (58-61) in his Ph. D. dissertation, “The Influence of African Traditional Religions on Biblical Christology: An Evaluation of Emerging Christologies in Sub-Saharan Africa” (Westminster Theological Seminary, 1995). See also Gehman's brief explanation of the African person's family and community orientation in African Traditional Religion in Biblical Perspective, 51-54.

[24] W. Michaelis, "PrwtotokoV," In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 6:871; Charles, “The Angels, Sonship and Birthright,” 177, citing Hatch and Redpath, A Concordance to the Septuagint and Other Greek Versions of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1897), 977-978.

[25] Charles, 177, referring to Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33; Walter C. Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 102.

[26] Guthrie, 69, citing Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. 3 vols. trans. by James D. Ernest (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 3:210.

[27] Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 138-143.

[28] Lane, Hebrews, 27. "The title prwtotokoV is appropriate to a context developing the motif of Son and heir.”

[29] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 15; Charles, 177; Lane, 26.

[30] Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, 143.

[31] For a discussion of the grammar and context that substantiates the English Standard Version's rendering of the introduction in verse six, "And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world," as well as a discussion of what time or event the "when" refers to, see Bruce, 17 and Lane, 26.

[32] It seems prudent to note at this point that no man or woman should inherit their father’s pastorate as a supposed birthright. That is nepotism, which is a kind of unbiblical favoritism. That reduces the ministry to a kind of family business and personal kingdom. To be a pastor according to the will of God, a man should meet the qualifications for eldership per 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Titus 1:5-9; and 1 Peter 5:1-5 (see also Acts 20:17-35)π. In addition, he should be recognized as such a man and called to the pastoral ministry by a congregation who has assessed him according to Scripture. Of course, the son of a pastor might very well be such a person.

[33] Malina, The New Testament World, 138.

[34] Emily A. Schultz and Robert H. Lavenda, Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition, 5th ed. (Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Co., 2001), 272-3.

[35] Of course, in a patriarchal society the firstborn son (and therefore, eldest brother) will have the status of firstborn whether or not preceded in birth by an elder sister or sisters. For an explanation of the conservative and organizational influence of the extended family (which includes deceased ancestors) in African society and its central importance for the lives of individuals, communities, tribes and even nation-states, see Kwesi A. Dickson, Theology in Africa (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1984), 170-5; Fon, “The Influence of African Traditional Religions on Biblical Christology,” 41-53; Elias Kifon Bongmba, African Witchcraft and Otherness: An Philosophical and Theological Critique of Intersubjective Relations (Albany, NY: State University Press, 2001), 1-16; and Jean-Marc Ela, My Faith as an African (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988), 13-26.

[36] Francois Kabasélé, "Christ as Ancestor and Elder Brother" In Faces of Jesus in Africa, ed. Robert J. Schreiter (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 117-122.

[37] See fn 22 in Benezet Bujo, African Theology in Its Social Context, trans. by John O’Donohue. Faith and Culture Series, ed. Robert J. Schreiter (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992), 25.

[38] Fon says, when explaining E. Bolaji Idowu's Christology, that seniority is "a concept which is predominant in sub-Saharan Africa," 103.

[39] Dickson, Theology in Africa, 171.

[40] See Fon, 43 and Kabasélé, “Christ as Ancestor and Eldest Brother,” 123-5.

[41] Bongmba, African Witchcraft and Otherness, 4-5.

[42] Fon, 44-47. He actually refers to the act of enstoolment in the past tense, explaining that only the family head can mediate between a family member causing offence to another and the ancestors because he/she as family head has been "enstooled" upon the ancestral stool.

[43] Kabasélé, 122.

[44] Lane, cxxxix.

[45] Of course, the Christian may ask God the Father through Christ to remove some kind of pain or trial (2 Cor. 12:8-10).

[46] Fon, 209.

[47] Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 215. 

[48] Three excellent resources with particular instruction for this kind of contextualization of biblical doctrine (i.e. “the gospel”) are Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), Daniel Strange, Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), and Jackson Wu, One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2015).

Article

Overlooked Mentors: What Can Persecuted Christians Teach Us About Leadership?

Brent L. Kipfer
Article

The Ministerial Legacy of Pastor Le Van Thai (1890–1985)

Daniel C. Owens
Article

Inspiration, Authority, and Canonicity of the Scripture: Comparative Study Between Hindu and Christian Scriptures

Sochanngam Shirik
85%

Invest in the global church and help pastors to better shepherd their churches and faithfully preach the gospel.

Learn About The 85%