A New Beginning for Arab Christian Theology
by Langham Partnership International Director Chris Wright
There have been Arab believers since before the followers of Jesus were even called Christians (a nickname that was invented in Syria). They were there on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10-11). And the Christian church has continued in the Middle East throughout the past two thousand years. Some of the rich tradition of Arabic Christian theological writings from a thousand years ago are being rediscovered today. But a distinctively evangelical Arabic Christian voice has not been heard addressing its own theological concerns in today’s world within significant book-size publications. Until this year.
(photo: “Arabic Contemporary Theology” at left, alongside an Arabic translation of Chris Wright’s “Salvation”)
January 2008 saw the launch of the “Arabic Contemporary Theology” (ACT). Beautifully produced as an A4-size textbook of 500 pages in two column Arabic, it is the fruit of a three-year project by a group of ten Arab Christian theologians in Egypt and Lebanon, some of whom are Langham scholars. From clear biblical foundations, it tackles some of the sharp issues that Christians face especially in the Middle East, including:
• How Arab Christians understand the Old Testament
• The Old Testament concepts of covenant and land
• The meaning of Jesus’ identity as a Jew
• Understanding prophetic texts in relation to religion and politics today
• Christianity and women
• Evangelical and ecumenical relations
• Salvation and other faiths
• Arab culture and identity and their theological challenges
The book was launched at a three-day seminar at a coastal resort on the Red Sea (perhaps in the footsteps of Moses?), which brought together about 70 theologians, pastors and Christian leaders from various Protestant denominations in Egypt. Langham Partnership was invited to attend, since we have invested significantly in the project from its beginning, and so Chris Wright (International Director), and Pieter Kwant (International Programme Director for Langham Literature) were both pleased to participate, and Chris Wright was an invited speaker in some of the sessions.
The book is published by Dar El Thaqafa, which is the publishing arm of CEOSS, the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Service (founded in 1950 by Sami Habib). The Director of Dar El Thaqafa is Andrea Zaki Stephanous – a Langham scholar who has driven the whole project from the beginning.
A Dream Fulfilled
“The dream started when I was doing my Ph.D. as a Langham scholar in Manchester, England,” says Andrea. “My Ph.D. was about religion and politics, a theology of minorities. I realized it was so important for us as Arabs to have our own theology and understanding of the Bible. Originally we intended to produce an evangelical Arabic systematic theology. The only one we had before is about 150 years old, it is mostly translated, and not original. But the shocking fact is that there is no single evangelical Arab scholar in the region equipped to produce such a systematic theology alone. So the idea transformed into an Arabic contemporary theology.
(photo: Andrea Zaki Stephanous seated with his wife Hala, and Amani, manager of the Dar El Thaqafa publishing operation)
“We wanted to face a whole range of challenges that come from things like: our own Arab Christian identity; the existence of the state of Israel; political Islam, which wants to marginalize Christians; ecumenism and church divisions – Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant; the identity and role of women; salvation; inspiration of the Bible – Islamic or our own? So there are many challenges facing us, and there are lots of smaller articles and leaflets on these things, but no systematic treatment.
“It was a real challenge – even just to get us Arabs to work together! Part of our culture is that we easily disagree! We had tough deadlines, and of course some theological differences. But we agreed a clear theological framework and worked hard.
“Another objective was to pull together the Langham scholars in the region and help them not to feel alone, but to cooperate in a major project. That has been a blessing for all of us.”
First of Its Kind
“I hope this book will do for its readers what it has done for the participants in this seminar this week,” said Dr. Mary Mikhail, one of the contributors to the volume. Mary has been President of the Near East School of Theology, Beirut, Lebanon for the past 14 years and on its faculty since 1984, after years in IFES work in the Middle East.
“It is the first of its kind in this part of the world. It raises questions that we sometimes don’t want to face, and drives us back to the Bible to search for answers. And even when we don’t find easy answers, or don’t agree what they are, it keeps us asking and wrestling with important issues.”
Mary’s chapter is on “Women – in the Bible and Christianity and the Middle East Today.” “It is a privilege to be included,” she said, “for I do have something to say and a textbook like this will make so much more impact on the church than articles and leaflets. It will reach more people and help more people. One of the editors told me, ‘When I read what you wrote about Mary, I felt like I was frozen holding the paper.’ Another said, ‘Nobody has tried to interpret the Bible for us the way you did. You spoke to my heart. I felt included.’
“I know I am standing in a minefield, and that some of the other contributions will be controversial in this part of the world, too. But I hope the book will lead to a greater openness in the churches to read the Bible afresh. I chose to get involved in the project because it really is the first of its kind, and it is high time we produced some solid evangelical theology in the Arabic context – not just translations.”
Building a Different Environment
Nabil Abadir is the Director of CEOSS, which is the umbrella Christian development agency under which Dar El Thaqafa functions. CEOSS is dedicated to blessing all the people of Egypt with the practical love of God that flows from the gospel. It serves among the most impoverished communities in health and literacy work, micro-enterprise, and sustainable development. CEOSS is also involved in cultural and inter-faith issues and stands in a high position of credibility and trust with the government as a result of 50 years of transparent integrity.
Nabil is delighted with the arrival of the ACT, and with the role of CEOSS in sponsoring it.
“It fits with all that CEOSS tries to do in building a different environment,” he said. “We live in the midst of a very tense situation here, and this book will help to develop new leaders who have a different attitude. Instead of an ignorant and aggressive stance, we want to relate to others in our country as human beings made in God’s image and sharing with us in God’s creation, and loved by God. We will want to develop forums for dialogue around the issues addressed in the book.
“This book comes at a very opportune time, in a region with such potential for causing world-wide trouble. We want to help Christians have the courage to develop positive programmes that build up society, to work with the rest of our society, and yet keep their Christian faith and identity very clear.”
A Very Practical Help
(photo:Basheer Anwar Nody)
But what about the ordinary pastor? Basheer Anwar Nody is pastor of a Coptic Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Gezer, Cairo, in the shadow of the pyramids. He felt that the contents of the book were addressing very crucial issues, but not in a merely academic way. The book would also be very helpful in all the practical matters that fill his life as a pastor, both in helping his own congregation, and in relating to the majority religious community around him and their spiritual leaders, and especially in the sphere of ministry he gives himself to most of all – peace-building and conflict resolution. He was very glad to be participating in the seminar.
The Dream Goes On
For Andrea, it is clear that this is just the start of the fulfilment of his dream.
“Our whole hope for a reference book like this is to create a debate, to open Arab Christians to the challenges around them, and to strengthen the church’s spiritual life,” Andrea said.
“But this book is not limited to the church alone. It is for Arab society – for Muslims and even Jews. I will be sending copies to intellectuals and some politicians even, to say, ‘Look how evangelical Arabs in your midst are thinking.’ We are saying, ‘Look, you have Arab Christians living among you. We are a minority, yes. But this minority is part of the region and they have their own theological understanding and identity. We are part of the region. We have our own cultural and social contribution to make. Please be aware that there is an evangelical voice, a faith, to be heard in this region.’
“We also hope that we can produce an English translation to make it available in the west,” Andrea continued. “I find some American and British Christians are astonished. They don’t know that there are so many Christians in Egypt and the Middle East. And they are your brothers and sisters, a solid community.”
The publication of the ACT is a vital first step, but only the first. Andrea and his colleagues are planning a 5 – 10 year programme. They plan further volumes in this series – an Arabic applied theology (addressing issues such as HIV-AIDS, the environment, nationalism, the arts, etc), another volume on theological issues not covered in the present volume (inspiration and authority of the Bible, the sacraments, inter-faith dialogue, etc), and eventually a full-blown Arabic systematic theology.
In addition, with Langham Literature’s further assistance, a five-volume “Arabic Contemporary Commentary” on the whole Bible is planned over the next 5-6 years. This will be a huge project. But Andrea is undaunted! And his confidence and competence combined with Langham’s continued investment and God’s gracious help, will bring it to fruition.
“Without the support of Langham Partnership and the help of God,” Andrea concluded, “this book would never have happened.”
Read more about Langham scholar Andrea Zaki Stephanous
View the LPI photo gallery of the January 2008 Egypt gatherings