Dr. Seblewengel Daniel lives with her husband and three children in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She earned her PhD from Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission, and Culture in Ghana. She is now the director of East Africa Sending Office, SIM, and a part-time faculty member at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology. She is also the author of Perception and Identity: A Study of the Relationship between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Evangelical Churches in Ethiopia (Carlisle, UK: Langham Press, 2019).
Dr. Daniel, thank you for taking the time to talk with us here at Modern Reformation. Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself, your research, and what you are working on?
Thank you for having me. Please refer to me as Seble as we have no surnames in Ethiopia. My full name is Seblewengel; it is a compound name. In Amharic, Seble means “harvest of” and Wengel means “gospel.” While she was expecting me, my mother used to teach the Bible to women in the rural areas around Durame, southern Ethiopia, and that is why she named me “harvest of the gospel.” I am married to Tamiru, and we have three children: Sebhat, Leul, and Bamlak. I served in the academy for two decades as a faculty member in systematic theology, practical theology, and I taught a few Ethiopian church history courses. My PhD research focused on the relationship between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which follows one of the most ancient Christian traditions, and evangelical churches. I also engage in research that focuses on women’s contributions and eliminating harmful traditional practices.
In our January/February 2022 issue, we learned about Ethiopian church history from an Ethiopian theologian (Dr. Frew Tamrat). We learned about the prominence of doctrinal disagreements between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Evangelical churches surrounding Christ’s two natures and Marian veneration. Could you briefly characterize those two doctrinal disagreements and any others you would like to add?
First of all, I think it is very important to understand that the tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) is different from that of evangelicals. We should also refrain from using collective terms in speaking of followers in the EOC.
The concern of evangelicals is that some of the beliefs and practices of followers in the EOC undermine the authority of the Bible and the supremacy of Christ. One such belief is the elevation of Mary. The ever-growing trends of exalting Mary, even to the point of depicting her as a “co-redeemer,” is a matter of great concern. However, it is important to remember that some of the beliefs about the status of Mary do not have their origins in the Church of Ethiopia, but in ancient Christianity as handed down from the fathers. Frumentius, the first bishop of the Ethiopian Church, honored Mary by naming after her the first church building erected by the king and the first Christian fellowship “Society of Mary Zion.” Aba Ephrem, one of the Syrian church fathers, is credited with inaugurating a new era of praising the Son and the mother in one breath. Prominent church fathers such as St. Jerome, for example, strongly believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity. The great affection to Mary also stems from her unique role of bearing the Savior of the world. The debates as to whether to call her “Mother of God/God-bearer” (Θεοτόκος) or “Mother of Jesus” had a great theological significance, because the issue can be christological. In other words, in refusing to call Mary “God-bearer,” it seemed that the very identity of Jesus Christ, the God-man she bore, was at stake! In the EOC’s official tradition, therefore, Mary was not exalted by her own merit but in relation to Christ and his work of salvation. However, in the fifteenth century, the era that followed the reigns of King Dawit and his heir Zer’a Ya’iqob, unprecedented devotion to Mary was inaugurated in which Mary was portrayed as co-redeemer. Objections to such degrees of elevation of Mary can be found within the writings of the Orthodox scholars and historians. It is explicitly stated in the writings of the Orthodox that the church does not worship Mary but honors her. However, most of the time, the mother and Son are inseparable in the minds of Orthodox followers. On the other hand, evangelicals seem to show little understanding of the dynamics at work while disregarding Mary and going to the other extreme. A friend of mine who is a former member of the Orthodox Church laments that in order to exalt the Savior, they seem to diminish the role of Mary in God’s plan of salvation.
The natures of Christ are also points of contention between the two traditions. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear Orthodox writers identify evangelicals with Nestorius, who was anathematized in the fifth century and accused of dividing the person of Christ. On the other hand, depicting the Orthodox as Monophysite is a common error. Both Orthodox and evangelicals acknowledge that Christ has a human and a divine nature. As to how the natures existed within the one person and whether his humanity endured is where they disagree. The doctrinal difference between evangelicals and EOC can be summed up in the status of the Bible that according to the evangelicals is to serve as a standard against which to weigh any given doctrine or practice.
There seems to be strong evidence to support the Protestant concern that in the structures of the Orthodox Church, Mary is exalted as high as or even higher than Christ. Although these claims are not accepted by the church’s theologians, Zer’a Ya’iqob’s composition (which explicitly exalts her as a savior) is read as part of worship in the church. Moreover, prominent preachers, teachers, and singers continue to use the platforms of the church to exalt Mary, angels, and other saints in a manner that is due to the living God alone. Hailing the Orthodox tradition as an authentic form of Christianity and depicting the evangelical one as foreign also continues to drive the followers of the two traditions apart.
On the other hand, evangelicals tie their identity to the Bible, but their expression of Christianity has limited indigenization. Perhaps because they were rejected and persecuted by the Orthodox Church, they distance themselves from indigenous Ethiopian expressions of worship and ways of life. Moreover, their indiscriminate criticism of the Orthodox offends the ancient church, and most of all hinders evangelicals from admiring the unique Christian heritage that the EOC has preserved at an immeasurable cost.
Why are these doctrinal disagreements so important to both EOC and evangelicals?
As I indicated above, the status of Mary can sound like Christology for Orthodox believers. Maintaining tradition is also very important for the Orthodox. What is handed down from the fathers is to be preserved and passed on. Moreover, in the debate about the priesthood (intercessory role) of Christ, an Orthodox believer raises a question about Christ’s equality with the Father. Since Jesus is coequal with God the Father, how can he offer prayers but receive them? Evangelicals, on the other hand, maintain the authority of the Bible, the sole mediatorship of Christ, and the eternal coexistence of his human nature with the divine one. Understanding these positions and their sources is important to address questions that are of greater theological significance both to the Orthodox and to evangelicals.
What approaches do you think are advisable or not advisable, as evangelicals continue to pursue biblical faithfulness and positively engage these doctrinal disagreements?
Collective depiction of the Orthodox as this or that is quite unhelpful. Expecting the Orthodox to prescribe to an evangelical tradition is also inappropriate. Maintaining respect and expressing one’s conviction with love is important. Dialogue is a way forward. For a true dialogue to take place, both parties need to accept each other as coming from different traditions but with common heritage. Knowing the church fathers and their teaching is also very important on the part of evangelicals. Genuine interest in indigenous expressions of Christianity is something evangelicals have yet to work on. We seem to have more confidence in theologies developed elsewhere than EOC expressions.
What positive examples and, conversely, warnings from experience can be learned as lessons from Ethiopian theology and history in regard to doctrinal controversies?
The positive things we learn from mission history in Ethiopia is the act of indigenizing Christianity. Christian expressions are intertwined with the culture, and they have become part and parcel of one’s authentic identity. Indigenous expressions of theology are preserved and passed on from generation to generation. We can also learn from maintaining monasteries as centers of learning, solitude, and prayer. What may serve as a warning is that revivals were not handled well in the history of the Church of Ethiopia. God’s acts of awakening the church have been nearly quenched throughout our history. We are to work on listening to one another in true humility and acknowledging our common heritages.
What do you pray the future might hold for evangelicalism and the EOC?
To some extent, the EOC and evangelicals have a desire to work together for a number of reasons. One of the reasons is internal turmoil they both faced. Both evangelicals and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church have experienced strong storms, which in the case of the Orthodox Church came near to splitting it. Evangelicals, on the other hand, are looking for a more stable and orderly church government. Thus their admiration for the EOC’s indigenous Christian values is growing, and disciplines such as fasting, order in the worship, and spiritual mentorship are being sought after.
The government is also playing a role of enforcing peace between religious bodies in the country. The government brought together major religious organizations and formed an Inter-Religious Council. The council’s delegates meet regularly and discuss issues related to tolerance. The council also holds workshops in district towns and creates awareness and promotes tolerance between adherents of different religions.
It is my prayer that both use the council and other relevant platforms (such as the Ethiopian Bible Society) for dialogue and grow to respect each other’s traditions and yet acknowledge that they are fallible. We are to learn to speak with and not just about one another. We are to listen to one another as those who have more in common. I also believe that both Orthodox and evangelicals need to deal with notorious preachers and teachers who diminish the centrality of Christ and the authority of the Bible for their own personal agenda.