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Vulnerable Mission

Our survey of terms used to translate pneuma into two East African languages has revealed an absence of suitable indigenous alternatives, resulting in widespread use of an imported term roho. This is unlike the case of God the Father, in which Bible translators have generally been careful to use an indigenous term. In the Trinitarian Godhead in East Africa then, we commonly have God the Father represented by an indigenous name (in the case of Dholuo; Nyasaye, and in the case of Kiswahili; Mungu). But God the Spirit (Roho) and God the Son (Yesu) are given names that are not-indigenous. Roho then, is something ‘new’ that East Africans were not familiar with before the recent advent of the White man. This is confirmed by notions, such as that of certain indigenous spiritual churches in Kenya, that they recently received the Spirit, who was before that only known to the Whites.[9]

According at least to some scholars, the introduction of a new term for ‘pneuma’ need not have occurred. Christianity in Africa is widely known to have relegated ancestors to the status of demons.[10] Not all African scholars are happy with this kind of demotion of their ‘still living’ (according to Mbiti, referred to above) ancestors.[11] The widespread use in the past of the English word ghost to translate pneuma is educational. It would seem to have the problem shared by East Africa where ‘ghosts’ are generically known to be evil (or at least bad) leading to the question of; how can a member of the trinity be a ghost? On the other hand though, wouldn’t it be an amazing scoop for the Gospel if what had been considered the activities of ghosts could be recognised as being a part of theo’s holy power and a member of the trinity? Whereas the powers that determine the course of fate in someone’s life have long been considered unreliable or evil, wouldn’t it be amazing for the credit for ‘fate’ to go to theo, and thus for life to be understood to have a definite and positive purpose?[12]

Image: Steven Lewis

In East Africa today, at least in part related to Roho being a new term, it is widely understood that pneuma hagion is a ‘new thing’ introduced in the missionary era. He can therefore easily be confused with the “hidden power of the Whites”[13] and with what is foreign, Western and/or mysterious. This understanding supports the prosperity Gospel. The new prosperity that has come with the European to Africa is spiritually accredited to the ‘new’ thing: roho. Perhaps choice of Holy Ghost (yamo maler or mzimu mtakatifu) to translate pneuma hagion wouldn’t have been such a bad choice after all? Then the pneuma hagion would have become more truly indigenous to Africa.

I have not here mentioned difficulties found in translation of the term holy in East Africa. These are considerable according to Mojola. Suffice it to say that it is difficult, if not impossible, to find East African terms that have the impact of ‘holy’ in the sense of being in the presence of God, rather than a state achieved as a result of some cleansing process.[14]

Perhaps terms in East Africa that have translated ‘theo’, could more helpfully have been used to translate pneuma? Nyasaye for the Luo people certainly seems to be a case in point. Tempels’ famous book finds that African people believe in vital force.[15] His description of vital force, which seems to equate with Luo people’s original understanding of Nyasaye,[16] can seem to have more in common with pneuma than with theo.[17] Perhaps Nyasaye should have been used to translate pneuma, and then a new term (Jehovah?) used to translate theo? The term which Ogot finds to be equivalent to vital force for the Luo people is juok (or jok) – which actually is taken by the Acholi and Lango (Luo people of Uganda) as the translation for theo,[18] although is by other Luo people taken as a translation for witchcraft.

Paul and Barnabas defended their notion of theo to the Lystrans by saying that they believed in the theo who “made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them” (Acts 14:15). In taking Paul and Barnabas as being theo (verse 11) presumably the Lystrans notion of theo was different from the Jewish/Christian one that included ‘creation’ as one of his attributes. The theo of the Lystrans seemed to be like a providential force who could suddenly appear and then be placated using sacrifices (Acts 14:13). He was not a ‘creator’, and perhaps had little personality at all? In this sense, his character could be more similar to the spirit (ruach), especially in the Old Testament, than to theo himself (Elohim)? The Lystran notion of ‘theo’ seemed to be more like the African one – more of a force / spirit / power, than of an intelligent being.

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2019

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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