The Nativity in Ethiopian Art

While doing research on Ethiopian hermeneutics, I came across a number of websites with great resources. Recent interest in the digital preservation of Ethiopian manuscripts has led to copies of paintings that were previously inaccessible being made publicly available for the first time. Here are two examples.

The Annunciation to the Shepherd and the Christ Child’s First Bath
“Illuminated Gospel [late 14th–early 15th century],” The Met, accessed 31 January, 2021,
The Nativity
“Illuminated Gospel [late 14th–early 15th century],” The Met, accessed 31 January, 2021,

These depictions of the Nativity are part of an illuminated manuscript of the Four Gospels that was created at Dabra Hayg Estifanos monastery in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. What is fascinating about the paintings is the way they draw on Byzantine models and transform them into an Ethiopian idiom. The portrayal of the shepherds is of particular interest in this regard. The following notes draw on the work of Prof. Stanislaw Chojnacki.

As Chojnacki notes, “the announcement to the shepherds by the angels, and their subsequent homage paid to the Child born in Bethlehem, have been represented either together or singly. In the post-iconoclastic Byzantine schema the announcement by the angels was generally shown, the angels appearing behind the top of the rock to the shepherds, who were placed below, on the right of the composition” (Chojnacki 1974, 19).

The illustrators of the Dabra Hayg Estifanos Gospels have chosen to represent the announcement to the shepherds and the shepherds’ journey to or arrival at Bethlehem separately. In the former, they follow the Byzantine model in terms of placement, but portray the shepherd quite realistically. He is well-wrapped, wearing a coat and a hat. His right hand is raised in surprise. His crossed legs and the pipe in his left hand suggest that the angel has just interrupted a pleasant musical reverie. In the latter, three shepherds are depicted, accompanied by three sheep. The shepherds are bare-headed and wear a kind of skirt. They are shown with their legs stretched wide, striding along at a fast pace. Each has his right hand raised in a greeting and holds a curved stick in his left hand.

As Chojnacki observes in his analysis of several Gospels, “In Ethiopia, largely composed of a pastoral society, the subject of the shepherds no doubt struck the imagination of the painters. This is possibly the reason why it occupies such a prominent place in the composition, the shepherds’ figures having the same size of main personages. Also the shepherds seem to be portrayed from life and wear local dress, while other figures seem rather to reflect foreign influence. In the Hayq Nativity the shepherds wear short decorative skirts, are barefoot and hold curved sticks. In the Zir-Ganela Nativity the very crude execution does not allow clear observation of particulars of the dress; nevertheless the shepherds have the same curved sticks as in the Hayq Nativity, and additionally perhaps an intriguing head-decoration. It is however possible that the “head-decoration” represents the way of drawing hair, as in Däbrä Mar Gospels in which several figures have their hair drawn in “Afro” style. The same realistic approach is obvious in the Faras Nativity: two shepherds stand with one of their legs crossed, supporting themselves on a long stick, a position of relaxation still used by Nilotic pastoralists” (Chojnacki 1974, 21).

Chojnacki, Stanislaw. “The Nativity in Ethiopian Art.” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 12, no. 2 (1974): 11-56. Accessed 31 January, 2021.

Exorcising Feuerbach, Marx and Freud

Stefan Paas mentions a great example of how African Christians can have a very different perspective on reality compared to that of European Christians: “The German researcher Claudia Währisch-Oblau tells an interesting anecdote about a seminar with migrant pastors in Germany. They had asked for information about German culture, and especially what barriers there were to evangelism in that culture. Subsequently a professor was flown in, who with good German thoroughness taught the pastors for almost the whole day about the founders of modern European atheism: Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. The researcher was somewhat taken aback to see how the migrant pastors processed this teaching. That very evening they had a two hour long prayer meeting, in which they loudly and fervently exorcised the spirits of Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, in the name of Jesus. Währisch-Oblau closes her story with the comments of the professor who had prepared the seminar. While the researcher was still disconcerted by the communication short circuit, ‘[he] asked himself out loud if a driving out of the spirit of religious critique was perhaps exactly what Germany needed.'”[1]

[1] Stefan Paas, Vreemdelingen en priesters: christelijke missie in een postchristelijke omgeving (Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, 2015), 105.

African Christians in Secular Amsterdam

Stefan Paas notes the significant presence of African Christians on the rather low-key Amsterdam church scene: “In Amsterdam perhaps three percent of the population regularly go to church, half of which consists of import Christians from Africa and a large part of the other half consists of import Christians from the Bible belt.” Consequently an important question for him is: “Can we learn something from non-Western Christians who are currently discovering Europe as a mission field.”[1]

[1] Stefan Paas, Vreemdelingen en priesters: christelijke missie in een postchristelijke omgeving (Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, 2015), 10, 13.

The Turner School of African Theology

Regarding the study of African theology, Walls points out that African experiences “have produced a greater degree of theological development than has often been recognized.”[1] In particular African theologians have explored the themes of conversion and Christian identity, developing their own creative methodological approaches for the African context. Two important examples include Cyril Okorocha’s The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa and Kwame Bediako’s Theology and Identity, both of which grew out of PhD dissertations under Andrew Walls at the University of Aberdeen. Studies like these are a valuable source for intercultural theology because they give African perspectives on the kind of methodological approaches that are most appropriate for the study of African theology and highlight important methodological considerations. Both theologians stress the need for an explicitly theological approach; Okorocha underlines the importance of empirical research while Bediako emphasizes the need for historical theological perspectives for studying African theology. Interestingly, both draw heavily on Harold Turner’s article, “The Way Forward in the Religious Study of African Primal Religions.”[2]

Harold Turner on Methodology

Turner’s phenomenological approach in this article raises a number of important points. The first is that “the nature of the field of study must provide the major control over the methods employed.”[3] Therefore the study of religion requires wide variety of methods, from the physiology of religion on the one hand to the theology of religion on the other. Second, Turner argues that the religious dimension or sphere requires distinctively religious disciplines in order to avoid reductionism.[4] Consequently he urges the use of phenomenology and the history of religions. Third, he suggests that “there is a dialectical interaction between the various methods as well as a hierarchical arrangement among them. Thus, physiology of religion might come towards the bottom of the hierarchy and the phenomenology and history of religions towards the top, with theology perhaps as the crowning study.”[5] His choice of metaphor, however, raises the question the question of whether theology is merely icing on a phenomenology cake. Turner is positive about the possibility for intercultural studies of religion. He argues that “There is nothing new in the endeavor to study a religious tradition set within a culture quite different from one’s own; it is going on all the time and all over the world” and states that “men resemble one another more than their cultures do.” Importantly, Turner defends the appropriateness of explicitly theological approaches to African reality, but calls for the use of “the specialist contributions of phenomenology and history of religions” in order to achieve “interpretive depth.”[6]

Okorocha’s Phenomenological Approach

Following Turner, Cyril Okorocha[7] argues that African scholars need to work on combining disciplines in the right hierarchical order in their study of African religious experiences. In particular he insists that “the religious is a sui generis sphere of the human life” and that “to fail to take seriously the religious itself is to fall into a dangerous reductionism.”[8] He agrees with Turner’s hierarchy of methods with theology as “the crowning study,” followed by phenomenology and the history of religions, and social anthropological approaches. In his work, Okorocha takes a phenomenological approach involving empirical research, aiming to describe African religious experiences of conversion as they are,[9] but insists that “the encounter between Igbo religion and Christianity in Igboland, and the attendant questions surrounding conversion and religious behaviour of Igbo converts centre around deep-seated theological issues, not merely socio-cultural ones.”[10] Furthermore, he writes that the results of his study not only call for African theological reflection, “which must at once be Christocentric, biblical, and contextual,” but also for intercultural theological dialogue, “drawing from the rich experience of the Church Universal and making its unique contribution to the ongoing life of the Church.”[11]

Bediako’s Historical-Theological Approach

Kwame Bediako also follows Turner’s methodological lead, though not without some criticism. He wonders whether Turner’s call for the use of phenomenology and history of religions “might not be seen as yet another instance of the use of structures of Western thought applied to African religion,”[12] but approvingly cites Turner’s defence of the appropriateness of an explicitly theological approach.[13] He ultimately argues that “the choice must lie with African Theology as to the descriptive categories and the criteria of judgment that it brings to bear upon African reality.”[14] In his own study, Bediako takes Turner’s claim that “the nature of the field of study must provide the major control over the methods employed” as his starting point.[15] Since African Christianity is part of a historical movement in which the gospel has been contextualized in different cultures, he argues that historical theology can help shed light on issues in contemporary African theology. In comparing historical and contemporary examples of contextualization it is possible to learn something about both Christian self-understanding as a whole and what is unique about African self-understandings in particular.[16] The central claim of his study is that “The phase of the Christian history which offers the most instructive parallels to the modern African context is the beginning of Hellenistic Christianity in the early Roman Empire.”[17] Bediako’s marriage of intercultural and historical theology is a bold move with important implications. If Tatian, Tertullian, Justin and Clement can shed light on African Christian identity, then perhaps Augustine can shed light on African understandings of sacrificial atonement metaphors. Issues that are important in Western theological debate surrounding the atonement, such as the notion of spiritualization, may not be so important to African theologians. Perhaps a typological understanding of sacrifice maps better with African discourse on Jesus’ sacrifice. Bediako thus emphasizes the need for a wide-angle theoretical lens when examining African theology.

[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 46.

[2] Harold W. Turner, “The Way Forward in the Religious Study of African Primal Religions,” Journal of Religion in Africa 12, no. 1 (1981): 1–15.

[3] Turner, “The Way Forward in the Religious Study of African Primal Religions,” 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Cyril Okorocha is Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Owerri, Nigeria.

[8] Cyril C. Okorọcha, The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa: The Case of the Igbo of Nigeria, Avebury Series in Philosophy (Aldershot: Avebury, 1987); Kwame Bediako, Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).

[9] Okorọcha, The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa, xi.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Ibid., xii.

[12] Bediako, Theology and Identity, 11n16.

[13] Ibid., 11n18.

[14] Ibid., 5.

[15] Ibid., 6.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 7.

Harold Turner: The Kiwi Walls

Harold Turner has been described by Paul Windsor as the “Kiwi Newbigin,”[1] but he could also be described as the “Kiwi Walls.” He was born in New Zealand in 1911 and after completing his studies in 1939 he worked for 15 years as a Presbyterian minister there. He went on to work as a missionary scholar in Sierra Leone and Nigeria where he met and formed a close partnership with Andrew Walls that continued for the rest of his life. It was during his time in West Africa that wrote his PhD dissertation, History of an African Independent Church in 1967, which as Andrew Walls writes is “Still the fullest account we have of the history of any body of African Christians.”[2] He later moved to the U.K., where he developed a new department at the University of Leicester based on his phenomenological approach to studying religion and also founded the Centre for New Religious Movements in Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham. During his time there he met Lesslie Newbigin, who asked him to read and comment on a draft of his well-known work The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Towards the end of his life he moved back to New Zealand, where he formed the Gospel and Cultures Trust (later called DeepSight Trust) with similar goals to those of Newbigin’s Gospel and Our Culture Network. He passed away in 2002.[3]


[2] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, 118.

[3] J. M. Hitchen, “Harold W. Turner Remembered,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 26 (2002): 112–17.

Andrew Walls on Intercultural Theology

The natural starting point for intercultural theological explorations of Western and African theology is the work of Andrew F. Walls. As Mark Noll writes, “no one has written with greater wisdom about what it means for the Western Christian religion to become the global Christian religion.”[1] In particular, Walls has played a pioneering role in the study of African Christianity. According to Lamin Sanneh, “He is one of the few scholars who saw that African Christianity was not just an exotic, curious phenomenon in an obscure part of the world, but that African Christianity might be the shape of things to come.”[2] Although he did most of his work before intercultural theology became “a thing,” he is in many ways an intercultural theologian par excellence. A lifetime of work on both the European and African continents has given him an unparalleled understanding of modern church history and contemporary Christianity in both contexts, and especially intercultural movements between the two. His life’s work has also deeply influenced his belief in the importance of intercultural theology and shaped his theoretical approach.

The first aspect of Walls’ approach is his biblical grounding of intercultural theology. In contrast to much of intercultural theology, which takes its starting point in recent trends in Western scholarship[3] or the growth of Christianity in the Global South,[4] Walls sees the grounds for intercultural theology as lying primarily in the Christian Scriptures. In his lecture on “The Ephesian Moment,” he explores the cross-generational and cross-cultural nature of redemption. Drawing on the Hebrews 1:1-2, he underlines the fragmentary nature of God’s self-revelation in history until, in the fullness of time, God revealed Himself fully in the person of His Son.[5] Yet Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and outpouring of His Spirit on his disciples were not the end of the historical process of redemption.[6] The Old Testament heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”[7] The author of Hebrews realised that their stories were incomplete without the stories of those who came after them, and the same is true today. The whole company of faith, spread out through time and space – terrible as an army with banners – is part of a single story awaiting its summation in Christ.[8]

Turning to Ephesians, Walls further explores the church’s temporal and spatial dimensions.[9] The remarkable growth of Christianity among the Gentiles in the ancient Mediterranean raised serious questions for the early church. Would the Gentile movement to Christ result in a church characterised by separate meal tables divided along ethnic and cultural lines? The answer in Ephesians is a resounding no. The metaphor of building a temple in Ephesians 2 and the beautiful trinitarian expression that accompanies it implies the construction of a unity of human diversity in Christ, a house for God, through the work of the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 4 the metaphor dramatically shifts to the building up of a body, which is to grow “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”[10] Paradoxically the coming together of human diversity in Christ results in common faith and understanding which grows the church in maturity and stature. Ultimately, as Walls writes,

Christ’s completion…comes from all humanity, from the translation of the life of Jesus into the lifeways of all the world’s cultures and subcultures through history. None of us can reach Christ’s completeness on our own. We need each other’s vision to correct, enlarge, and focus our own; only together are we complete in Christ.[11]

Walls’ biblical grounding of intercultural theology reveals three further aspects of his theoretical approach.

The second aspect of Walls’ approach is his Christocentric focus. Christian salvation depends on the historical person and work of Christ.[12] Thus, the central focus of theology is: “understanding who Christ is and why he is so called.”[13] The primary concern for the early church how to articulate who Jesus was and what he meant to Greek-speaking Gentiles. Talking about Jesus using the Jewish title ‘Messiah’ was problematic because Gentiles were unfamiliar with the term, so they translated it into the Greek title ‘kyrios’, which meant “Lord.” The translation was a key move and not without risks, yet rather than distorting the early church’s understanding of Jesus it was enriching, with important implications for both Christology and Trinitarian theology.[14] Not only was he the Messiah, with all the rich meaning that term carried, “Crossing a cultural frontier led to a creative movement in theology by which we discovered that Christ was the eternally begotten Son.”[15]

Closely connected with Wall’s Christocentric focus is his emphasis on catholicity. As Walls states, “The church must be diverse because humanity is diverse; it must be one because Christ is one.”[16]God reveals Himself to a diverse company of faith that is being built together into a temple where God dwells, into a body that demonstrates Jesus’ life to the watching world. “The Ephesian moment – the social coming together of people of two cultures to experience Christ—was quite brief….But in our own day the Ephesian moment has come again, and come in a richer mode than has ever happened since the first century.”[17]Only together can we grow in our unity of faith and understanding of who Jesus is. Only together can we hope to attain to “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

The fourth aspect of Walls’ approach is his eschatological vision. God has already revealed Himself fully in the person of His Son, but the fullness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus has not yet attained its summation. Similarly the Holy Spirit has already brought the church into being, but the body of Christ has not yet reached its full stature. As Walls asserts, “The work of salvation is a historical process that stretches out to the end of the age.”[18] The end of the age “is not a sudden act of divine despair that abandons the process on earth as useless….Equally, the end of the age is not…a sort of evolution in which the heavenly kingdom grows naturally out of a set of conditions achieved on Earth.”[19] There is no room for either end times despair or chronological snobbery in intercultural theology. The Ephesian moment is a foretaste of the great multitude that no one can number in Revelation 7, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity in all its diverse cultural forms.

[1] Mark A. Noll, “Andrew F. Walls: The Missionary Movement in Christian History (1996),” First Things, March 2000, accessed 8 December 2015,

[2] As quoted in Tim Stafford, “Ahead of His Time: Andrew Walls May Be the Most Important Person You Don’t Know,” Christianity Today 51, no. 2 (February 8, 2007): 87,

[3] See Volker Küster, “Toward an Intercultural Theology: Paradigm Shifts in Missiology, Ecumenics, and Comparative Religion,” in Theology and the Religions: A Dialogue, ed. Viggo Mortensen (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 171–84 and “The Project of an Intercultural Theology,” Svensk Missionstidskrift 93, no. 3 (January 1, 2005): 417–32; and especially Werner Ustorf, “The Cultural Origins of ‘Intercultural Theology,’” Mission Studies 25, no. 2 (January 1, 2008): 229–51.

[4] See Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) and The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[5] Although Walls does not explore it here, the emphasis on the spoken nature of revelation in the introduction of the Letter to the Hebrews has a lot of potential for intercultural theology.

[6] Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 72.

[7] Hebrews 11:39-40 ESV.

[8] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, 73.

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] Ephesians 4:13 ESV.

[11] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, 78.

[12] Ibid., 72.

[13] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History.

[14] Ibid., 79–80; for more on translation as a key theme in contextualization, see Lamin O. Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009).

[15] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, 80.

[16] Ibid., 77.

[17] Ibid., 78.

[18] Ibid., 73.

[19] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History.

The Sovereignty of God in Intercultural Perspective

In his excellent book, When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert relates the following story of how he came to a deeper and richer understand the sovereignty of God during a visit to a Kenyan slum. The story is a great illustration of the value of intercultural perspectives both for theology and Christians around the world as they seek to grow in their walk with God.

One Sunday I was walking with a staff member though one of Africa’s largest slums, the massive Kibera slum of Nairobi. The conditions were simply inhumane. People lived in shacks constructed out of cardboard boxes. Foul smells gushed out of open ditches carrying human and animal excrement. I had a hard time keeping my balance as I continually slipped on oozy brown substances that I hoped were mud but feared were something else. Children picked through garbage dumps looking for anything of value. As we walked deeper and deeper into the slum, my sense of despair increased. This place is completely God-forsaken, I thought to myself.

Then to my amazement, right there among the dung, I heard the sound of a familiar hymn. There must be Western missionaries conducting an open-air service in here, I thought to myself. As we turned the corner, my eyes landed on the shack from which the music bellowed. Every Sunday, thirty slum dwellers crammed into this ten-by-twenty foot “sanctuary” to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The church was made out of cardboard boxes that had been opened up and stapled to studs. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a church, a church made up of some of the poorest people on earth.

When we arrived at the church, I was immediately asked to preach the sermon. As a good Presbyterian, I quickly jotted down some notes about the sovereignty of God and was looking forward to teaching this congregation the historic doctrines of the Reformation. But before the sermon began, the service included a time of sharing and prayer. I listened as some of the poorest people on the planet cried out to God: “Jehovah Jireh, please heal my son, as he is going blind.” “Merciful Lord, please protect me when I go home today, for my husband always beats me.” “Sovereign King, please provide my children with enough food today, as they are hungry.”

As I listened to these people praying to be able to live another day, I thought about my ample salary, my life insurance policy, my health insurance policy, my two cars, my house, etc. I realized that I do not really trust in God’s sovereignty on a daily basis, as I have sufficient buffers in place to shield me from most economic shocks. I realized that when these folks pray the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer-Give us this day our daily bread-their minds do not wander as much as mine so often does. I realized that while I have sufficient education and training to deliver a sermon on God’s sovereignty with no forewarning, these slum dwellers were trusting in God’s sovereignty just to get them through the day. And I realized that these people had a far deeper intimacy with God than I probably ever will have in my entire life.[1]

[1] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor. . .and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009), 68-69.

Karl Barth on Intercultural Theology

In a forthcoming article, “The Christus Victor Motif in Karl Barth and African Theology,” Benno van den Toren mentions an interesting passage from Barth’s later work on the value of intercultural theology. In a discussion of “The Lordless Powers” in lecture fragments on the Christian life, intended to become part of vol. IV, 4 of his Church Dogmatics, Barth writes:

“In this matter we have one of the not infrequent cases in which it has to be said that not all people, but some to whom a so‐called magical view of the world is now ascribed, have in fact, apart from occasional hocuspocus, seen more, seen more clearly, and come much closer to the reality in their thought and speech, than those of us who are happy possessors of a rational and scientific view of things, for whom the resultant clear (but perhaps not wholly clear) distinction between truth and illusion has become almost unconsciously the criterion of all that is possible and real….

“Might it be that our fellow Christians from the younger churches of Asia and Africa, who come with a fresher outlook in this regard, can help us here? We hope at least that they will not be too impressed by our view of the world and thus be afflicted by the eye disease from which we ourselves suffer in this matter.”[1]

[1] Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV, 4 Lecture Fragments, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (London: T. & T. Clark, 2004), 216, 219.

The Ephesian Moment

Great stuff from Andrew Walls on ‘the Ephesian moment’ and its implications for the church today: “The Ephesian moment – the social coming together of people of two cultures to experience Christ—was quite brief….But in our own day the Ephesian moment has come again, and come in a richer mode than has ever happened since the first century.”[1]

“There are two dangers. One lies in the desire to protect our own version of the Christian faith, or even seek to establish it as the standard normative one. The other, and perhaps the more seductive in the present condition of Western Christianity, is the postmodern option: to decide that each of the expressions and versions is equally valid and authentic, and that we are therefore each at liberty to enjoy our own in isolation from all the others.”[2]

“The Ephesian metaphors of the temple and of the body show each of the culture-specific segments as necessary to the body but as incomplete in itself. Only in Christ does completion, fullness, dwell. And Christ’s completion, as we have seen, comes from all humanity, from the translation of the life of Jesus into the lifeways of all the world’s cultures and subcultures through history. None of us can reach Christ’s completeness on our own. We need each other’s vision to correct, enlarge, and focus our own; only together are we complete in Christ.”[3]

[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 78.

[2] Ibid., 78–79.

[3] Ibid., 79.