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Book Review

Perception and Identity

Author’s name: Seblewengel Daniel

Title: “Perception and Identity: A Study of the Relationship between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Evangelical Churches in Ethiopia”

Publication date: October, 2019

Publisher: Langham Monographs

Pages: 486

This work is the dissertation of the author, submitted at the Akrofi-Christaller Institute, Ghana,turned into a book. The book explores how evangelicals and adherents of the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaḥǝdo Church (EOTC) see themselves and perceive each other both in the past and present.

The history of the relationship between the EOTC and the Evangelical Churches in Ethiopia is not characterized by smooth interactions. The negative experience the EOTC had with the Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century forced the church to look with suspicion at any foreign based mission activities in the country. The Jesuit missionaries tried to convert Ethiopians to Catholicism. They created serious doctrinal disputes and sowed discord among the populace, endangering the stability of the country. They raised contentious doctrinal questions and interfered with local customs (e.g., circumcision and Sabbath). The Jesuits were driven from Ethiopia as a result.

Since the Protestant missionaries set foot in the northern part of the country, they have experienced resistance from the then kings and the Church. Such an encounter compelled the missionaries to abandon their plans to engage with the Orthodox north and instead focus on the non-Christian people groups in the country’s south and west. Even in those areas, the missionaries had a negative relationship with the EOTC. The Orthodox church leadership, along with regional administrators in the south, fiercely fought the rise of Protestant churches and undertook an ongoing effort to stop the establishment of evangelical churches.

In the early 20th century, the missionaries’ activities were mainly confined to the peripheries. Later, the coming of Pentecostal-type Christianity as an urban movement gave visibility to the protestant churches and thus threatened the national church (See, Tibebe, The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia). As a result, Pentecostals suffered a great deal of persecution. 

Seblewengel’s books attempt to unpack the dynamic relationship between the Orthodox and evangelical churches through the lenses of perception and identity (using historical and theological frame works to explain the dynamics at work). The book “explores the notion of perception and identity among the Orthodox and Evangelicals beginning with the earliest organized Protestant missionary engagement with the Orthodox Church and examines the contemporary self-consciousness and perception of each other” (p.9).

The book is divided into seven chapters. In the first chapter, the author states the motivation and intellectual framework of her study. This chapter also discusses the methodological and historical background of the study. Historical and theological methods are used for the analysis. The author uses Andrew Walls’ framework for her identity discussion, namely: an essential continuity in Christianity, the “indigenizing” principle, and the “Pilgrim” principle. In which the final principle encourages both parties to view each other from a different perspective, as having the same “adoptive past.”

These three features encourage Christians to think differently about themselves and other Christian traditions.

1) Continuity in Christian faith, despite the presence of multiple centers and media over the years, indicates the presence of shared Christian identity.

2) According to the “Indigenizing Principle,” God embraces people with both good and bad cultural tendencies because of Christ’s sacrificial death. As a result, attempting to impose one’s culture or tradition as the correct one lacks biblical support.

3) According to the “Pilgrim Principle,” God accepts people in order to turn their minds toward Christ. Hence, Christians are to display Christlikeness, which puts them at odds with the society in which they live.

The second and third chapters provide context for the formation of Ethiopian Christian identity in the EOTC and Evangelical/Pentecostal movements. The histories of both the EOTC and the Evangelicals are briefly discussed. These two chapters situate the subject at hand in historical perspective. As Ethiopia’s first church, the EOTC developed its own distinct heritage and traditions. Later, the country was introduced to Catholic and Protestant form of Christianity.

The fourth chapter depicts the interactions between the missionaries and their Orthodox counterparts, primarily the Church Missionary Society. It is emphasized that the missionaries’ unsuccessful attempts to revivify the Orthodox Church through Bible reading with the aim of reaching the “heathen”. They were, however, successful in distributing scripture copies, which proved crucial to the spread of the Protestant movement in Ethiopia. The missionaries did not initially want to form a distinct congregation.

The interplay between the Orthodox church and local evangelicals is described in Chapter 5 and is marked by mutual antagonism and misunderstanding. It recounts how each views the other and perceives themselves. As it is clearly pointed out in the book, the encounter between the two is rife with miscommunication and mutual hostility. Seblewongel argues that, “[a]t the heart of the Orthodox-Evangelical divide, therefore, is their sense of identity (who they think they are) and their perception of others (who they think the other party is)” (p.400).

The evangelicals alleged the Orthodox church as erroneous and አሕዛብ/Ahzab (“without Christ,”) while the Orthodox perceived the evangelicals as heretic (መናፍቅ/menafeq) and accused them of “sheep-stealing.” A leading scholar of the Orthodox Church wrote an article entitled “Evangelizing the Evangelized” to show the EOTC’s reaction to the aggressive evangelism of Protestants.[1] Pentecostals are considered ጸረ ማርያም/Tärä Mariam (“the enemy of Mary”), መጤ/Mäte (“foreign/new comer”), and unpatriotic. Initially, Pentecostals were referred to by the derogatory term ጴንጤ/ P̣enṭe, but later this term became a general nomenclature to refer to Protestants in general. Each does not consider the other an authentic Christian. On the other side, members of the EOTC perceived themselves as the only true church in Ethiopia. 

The evangelical movement challenges some of the doctrines of the EOTC (Mariology, angelology, and veneration of saints, to name a few). The worship style differs, and hence they are labeled as foreign. The evangelical identity inherited some form of identity from its founding missionaries (discontinuity) and also from the local culture and tradition (continuity), in which both differ from the identity of the EOTC and hence become causes of conflict.

Chapter six discusses the reformation impulses (ḥädǝso or ‘renewal’ movements) within the EOTC and their interaction among themselves and with evangelicals, from whom they get financial and other types of support. This chapter discusses historical figures such as the 15th-century monk abba Estifanos in relation to the recent reformation attempt.

The last chapter concludes the book and makes recommendations as to how the relationship can be improved and how to foster a harmonious ecumenical relationship among the two denominations. What unites the two churches is far greater than what divides them, like faith in the triune God. The book includes an appendix on early attempts at ecumenism and a glossary of important Amharic terms that are used in the text.

The book is an excellent historical examination of how the two denominations view each other. The interaction of Protestants and Orthodox churches in Ethiopia is the least researched topic. There are only a few published works on the topic, like: The Missionary Factor and Anthropological Insights for Mission. Seblewongel’s work fills a critical need and encourages interested students to explore the issues many facets. It is a must-read for religious and mission historians, as well as those interested in ecumenical relations and modern Ethiopian history. To reach a wider audience, the book should be translated into the local languages.

[1] Taddesse Tamrat, “Evangelizing the Evangelized: The Root Problem between Missions and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” The Missionary Factor in Ethiopia (Frankfurt am Main, Studien Zur I.G.C, 1998,) pp. 21- 22.

Nebeyou Alemu (PhD)

ነቢዩ ዓለሙ፣ በትምህርት ዝግጅቱ በጥንታዊ መዛግብት ጥናት (Philology) የፒ.ኤች.ዲ ጥናቱን በአዲስ አበባ ዩኒቨርሲቲ ያደረገ ሲሆን፣ ከኢትዮጵያ ድኅረ ምረቃ ሥነ መለኮት ት/ቤት ማስተርስ ኦፍ ዲቪኒቲ ሠርቷል። በአሁኑ ጊዜ በዩኒቨርሲቲ ኦፍ ሳውዝ አፍሪካ (UNISA) በሥነ መለኮት ሁለተኛ የፒ.ኤቺ.ዲ ትምህርቱን እየተከታተለ ይገኛል። በተለያዩ የሥነ መለኮት ት/ቤቶች የሚያስተምረው ዶ/ር ነቢዩ ዓለሙ፣ በዊክሊፍ ኢትዮጵያ የትርጉም ሥራ አማካሪ ነው። ታሪክ፣ ሃይማኖት እና መጽሐፍ ቅዱስ ላይ ጥናቶችን ማድረግ ያስደስተዋል።

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ይህን ማንነቴን ምን ልበለው?

ባንቱ ገብረ ማርያም በዚህ ዐጭር ጽሑፋቸው፣ የሕይወታቸውን ዙሪያ ገባ ይቃኛሉ፤ ቃኝተውም አንድ መለያ ብቻ የሌለው ማንነት የተጎናጸፉ መሆኑን ይገነዘባሉ። አንድ ጥያቄ ግን ማንሣታቸው አልቀረም፤ “ይህን ማንነቴን ምን ልበለው?” የሚል።

ተጨማሪ ያንብቡ

Pluralism: The Culture of Democracy

In this article, Andrew DeCort (Dr.) argues that pluralism is vital if democracy should take the floor, in societies such as ours. He even says: “Advocating democracy without pluralism is like advocating fish without water. The one cannot live without the other.”

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