Andrea Stephanous | Arabic Christian Theology
1:39PM Feb 19, 2021
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today we're thrilled to be speaking with the Reverend Andrea Zaki Stephanous Reverend Stephanous is the president of the Coptic evangelical organization for social services, the president of the Protestant churches of Egypt and president of the fellowship of the Middle East Evangelical churches. Reverend Stephanous is also editor of the text that we'll be discussing today "Arabic Christian Theology: a contemporary global evangelical perspective". Reverend Stephanous. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Thank you and your
Reverend Stephanous, a few years ago, the Langham company published the African Bible Commentary that volume came out in 2010. And then in 2015, Langham released the South Asian Bible Commentary, and in 2018, released the Arabic contemporary commentary on the Bible. This volume is also published in conjunction with Langham, is there a relationship between the Arabic Christian theology text and these other national commentaries?
First of all, thank you for this interview. And I would like to say thank you also for Langham which supports us for a contextual theology and and of course, Arabic Christian theology is a materials that developed by Arab theologians regarding the context of Middle East and the Arab world it is the evangelical worldview in the Arabic language, dealing with the hot issues that raised in the last 50 years and created a lot of debate in the Middle East and the Arab world. And there is a clear connection because Arabic contemporary commentary is the first commentary that written by Arab biblical scholars and the Arab theologians, from different denominations and from different countries. We have Egyptians and Libonese, Syrians, Jordanians, Palestinians, people, Christians, who lives in Kuwait, and also from orthodox Catholics, evangelical. So this combination of allx backgrounds, from different denominations from different countries, the Middle East, was unique. And also for the first time that we are in the framework of the Lausanne covenant. The two volumes are developed. It's It's It's important to mention this, and the Arabic Christian theology was a lens in which that Arabic contemporary commentary connected and both present something that Arab theologians or biblical scholars will say to the world concerning materials related to Christianity, which is born in the Middle East.
Yes, that's an amazing point that our religion of Christianity was born right there in the Middle East. Something that we can easily forget here in the West. Reverend Stephanous, the Arabic Christian theology text is comprised of seven large and in depth articles. Would you be willing to say a word on the how the author's and topics for these articles were selected please?
As I mentioned, and the first question that Arab theologians and biblical scholars were very concerned with the issues that raised on the 20th century and the beginning of the third millennium. And one of these important topics, the relationship with Israel, and the question of the State of Israel is the state of Israel is the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies, or Israel is a political state and we respect Israel as a political state, not necessity, we are against Jews people, but what the relationship between covenant in the Old Testament and the State of Israel, so Reverend Dr. Riad Kassis and delivery of Dr. Ghassan Khalaf was dealing with this topic. It was an important topic, the second important topic relationship between religion and politics. And you know, in the Middle East, the emergence of political Islam and the born of the State of Israel, which is state of Israel connected Judaism, to the State of Israel. So you are politically stem and you have political Judaism was created as a strong debate about the relationship between religion and politics. So there is representation about religion and politics. And, of course, if you live in the Middle East, the whole issue of women will be a challenge. So, Dr. Mary Mikhael she's a theologian and Jesus specialist in Christian education, responding to the challenge of women in the context of the Middle East. The relationship between East and West was another challenge culture and I use another challenge too. So the topics is not just theologians, go to rooms, closed rooms and write a book. It is a connection between the challenge ways of survival, if I can put it in this way, ways of expressing our theological views to political, theological, social issues that it needed in the Middle East and the Arab world it at the moment.
Thank you very much reverand Stephanous for that response. You do know that Christianity in the Middle East is is placed between religion and politics in a number of issues, Riad Kassis, tackles some of those issues directly with his article, the concept of the covenant in evangelical thought and its impact on the Middle East and North Africa. In this article, Reverend Kassis comments on the biblical perspective on covenants as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict today. And he concludes this I quote from page 84, quote, "I must insist that the migration of ethnic Jews to the land of Palestine in the 20th century did not fulfill the covenants of the Old Testament, and that it has no theological value or significance". That's that's a very clear but powerful and strong statement, no theological value or significance. Would you be willing to comment or further explain on this point of view in the volume?
Yes, there is, of the State of Israel last century was the major challenge to Arab Christians. You know, as evangelical Christians we are so committed to the cos-consistency, and the authority of the Old Testament and the New Testament. We are so committed to the authoritative authority of the Bible as a word Bible. Now, some of the Christian in the region raised the questions of the relationship between the State of Israel and the prophecies of boldness. And Dr. Kassis is strongly and they clearly responded to this. We do believe that all prophecies of the Old Testament fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and then you as the church, because if we talk about new fulfillment of the prophecies, there is no meaning of the church for us. And the Arab Christians, we believe the church is the new Israel, it present the all fulfillment of all prophecies of the Old Testament in Jesus Christ Himself. So we are clearly what Paul said in Romans nine and 11. And as other passages that we are in the theology of the covenant, and the covenant, clearly fulfilled in Jesus Christ. And in that context, theologically, we consider the State of Israel as a political reality. And politically, we consider the State of Israel political reality. Some of our countries has a diplomatic relationship with Israel, other has not, and we should respect the variety and the Middle East. Now, the evangelical world worldwide is divided about this. And you have evangelicals who believe that the State of Israel is the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament, we do not. But also clearly we based our theological understanding on our biblical understanding, as I mentioned, clearly, if the full if there is prophecy that will be fulfilled, what is the meaning of the church today? So we are very clearly in this issues as Arab Christians for the last 50 years or 70 years that will grow the theolo--the Covenant theology that we respect is a list I don't want to get around the message here, with respect to Israelis as political realities, but we are Looking to our theology of the theology of Covenant, and when I said we respect Israelis, we respect them as a human being. This is does not mean we agree about the policies that are taking by the State of Israel currently, which and since its inception, we are broke. I need to move a little bit to a political context. Because I'm living on the Middle East. We are pro Palestinian rights. We are pro two states of Israel and Palestinians. We are pro coexistence. And they will talk to us later. But we believe that all prophecies fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Thank you, Reverend Stephanous, for your willingness to speak to a very difficult issue. I appreciate your engagement. So just for clarity sake. So your position is that the prophecies in the Old Testament are completely filled in the person of Jesus. There's no expectation of a future fulfillment of these Old Testament prophecies. Is that correct?
Great. Thank you very much. We're delighted today to be speaking with Reverend Stephanous articl--, the editor of the volume Arabic Christian theology, a contemporary global evangelical perspective. And Reverend Stephanous, one of the articles in this book is titled "The Christian woman". It's an article by Mary Mikhael, and she surveys the historical and continuing cultural resistance to ministry and women, as well as the biblical data on the issue of concluding that Paul's the Apostle Paul's injunction in passages like Second Timothy 2:11-15 are a matter of private concern in Paul's correspondence with Timothy and that they are not intended for a general injunction for the entire church. What is the state of women's ordination in your context please?
This is a very complicated issue, it is connected to theology, culture and context. We have three views in the Middle East concerning woman ordination. The first view they are saying that theologically, biblically, culturally, contextually contextually it is rejected. Women should not be or ordained, should not. There is a second view saying that, yes, biblically, we can accept the equality between men and women. And possibly we can ordain women, but we will not ordain women because culturally and politically and traditional churches will not accept that, and we are not living alone in the context of the Middle East. So although theologically, there is room for women, ordination, culturally and politically, we are not accepting women are finished. Now, there is a third trend among Middle Eastern theologian and biblical scholars, which you see that men and women are equal in the Bible. And they are ordained as elders in some of the churches, and equality is essential, and women are the nation must be accepted. And as evangelicals we lead the society in the past, and we shouldn't control we shouldn't control by society views, and we should promote women ordination. Now the three views are in conflict in the Middle East, but in Lebanon, last year, two or three women was ordained as a pastor's, and it was a paradigm shift and a good shift. But in Egypt, where the majority of Christians they postponed the decision to 26 to 27 or 28 years from now. So it is complicated. Now, when we come to theological discussion like polperro habitation of women teaching, of course, there are different exegetical and interpretation of this takes some take it literally, as it is others take in the contact in the in the context of the passages and have different interpretation. So it is not only a theological button in the middle east woman ordination, it is also a culture and a political battle too
Reverend Stephanous, what I find amazing is from your context in Egypt, there's such a strong divergence of different cultures that the church has to navigate. But that also becomes a very impressive model of how the Christian church can bring unity to a cultural space that's so divided on other issues. You're a churchman, Reverend Stephanous, you're in contact with many different varieties of Christian churches in Egypt. Would you speak for a moment on what the COVID crisis is doing to the change in communication patterns in the church there? Is our sudden reliance on electronic forms of communication, helping you keep these diversity of opinions in check in contact with one another? Or is it making communication more difficult for you?
No, it's, of course, a pandemic create a lot of struggles and problems. It is not only a health challenge, but it is also an economic challenge. And of course, as a leader of the Protestant churches, we decided to take a progressive actions and we ask all of our churches, to stop going to the churches and to keep worship online. And, and we close our churches four months now, which affect a lot. Sometimes we spoke in the past about the importance of church online. Now we like church online, but we need to come back to physical meetings again. So technology never replace a physical meeting technology never replace the blessings of being together the blessing of talking to each other. So we will progressively taking decisions that help other traditional churches, also to take the same path. Because we do believe that the law is created for men and women, not men and women is created for law. That's what Jesus said. So the heads of the people is coming number one, and and and low serve the security of the human being. So it was a challenge, but we still at homes. Now we are planning to have a meeting on the end of July. Hopefully at the beginning of August, we come gradually back to the church, to the pandemic was a challenging theologically, because some people showed that this is a punishment of God. And I don't believe I believe that God loves us, we never punish us by pandemic. When we have difficulties, he gives the exit with the difficulties, he never leave us alone. He's always in our side. He's always with us. He loves us. He's behind us. He's creating ways to help us to go out and exit of this. So there are theological confusion. There are economic difficulties, and there are religious difficulties. So we are praying that we can come back soon to the churches, being together and serving the Lord together and serving the community together. Also the churches, they took a lot of measurement to help the poor to help me meet because many of the church members not only church members, but at local communities, Muslims and Christians, they are not working, they have no access to food, they have no access to income. So many of local churches take their prophetic responsibilities on the time of pandemic.
Thank you very much, Reverend Stephanous for speaking to that issue. Reverend Stephanous in your article in this text, which is titled "Culture and Identity". You deal with Arab Christian identity in the face of political Islam. From your perspective, how do Christian people today sort out what is cultural and what is genuinely Christian in our beliefs and practices?
Thank you for this questions with the emergence of political Islam. Christians felt strongly that they are totally marginalized because political Islam is advocate for only one identity is religious identity. And if you are applying the concept of the philosophy of political Islam, to Egypt, and to the Middle East, Arab Christians feel that they are second class citizen. And the political Islam did not allow them to participate politically, because identity is limited to religion and for political Islamists. Religion only is Islam, not other religions. But also in that context, there were a challenge of what is our relationship to Arabism? We are Arabs, or we are Egyptians and the Lebanese. We are Egyptian. So we are veterans. We are Lebanese who are Phoenicians who are not Arabs. Of course there is a lot of debates about our roots. And there are different theories about that I'm not going to enter that debate. But whatever, if we are referrals, or if what we're Phoenicians, the inhabitants of all these regions are connected to each other. So if we consider Arabism is only equivalent to Islam, then Arabism will be problematic for Arab Christians, if we consider our Arabism, is more than one religion. It's include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It's include all different ethnic groups in the Arab world and the Middle East. So in that context, Arabism is a dynamic concept that includes everyone and give basis to everyone for a political participation and for coexistence. In that context, I consider myself as an Arab Christian leader, as Arab culture theologian, as Arabism is consist of all the religions of the region, all histories of the region, all ethnic groups of the region. In that context, our vision is a cultural framework. Now, this will take us to another point that how we can distinguish generally between what is culturally and what is biblically and, of course, exeg--exegetical understanding of the vestiges is very important. If we understand the context where these patches passages were written, and understand the context of today as an Arabs who lives in the Arab world, then we can communicate the message to our reality today, which are powerful message that can transform our reality. And this is contextualization. It's simply that we understand our tools in the context of these tools, but also understand our reality and apply the message of the Bible to our reality, which is that transformative message. Always I said, this is like two journeys, journey that we go through the text and journey that we come back to the context. The first journey, we go and understand the message of God and the return the journey, we take the message with us to our own reality. This is where I understand the relationship between truth and context.
It's really very beautifully stated. Thank you so much for that gem, your your advice there. Reverend Stephanous What are the unique challenges to ecumenical progress in the in the context of the Middle East?
I need to talk about two levels. I need I will use ecumenical when I conclude my the answer of this question. I think the challenge of coexistence between different religions, even different denominations is a major challenge in the Middle East and the Arab world today. I do believe it is a worldwide not only limited to Middle East, but it is one of the challenges that we have today coexistence, how you can reconcile between your faith and you living together with others. How you can reconcile between evangelization and religious freedom, evangelization and coexistent, these are challenging issues and needs, always a theological understanding for our faith and the cold but also for our relationship with the others and with other elimination and those other religions. So this is a bigger challenge that needs always a theological reflection. When we come to unity between the churches I'd like to be a little bit blunt and transparent and clear, not diplomatic. I think the real unity of the church will happen when Jesus come back. Now we have initiatives maybe taking some advantages and build good relationships. First, there is no administrative unity between the church we will not be Catholic or Catholic or we will not be orthodox and Catholics and Orthodox, Catholic will not be evangelical. They have their beliefs. We all have a common belief in Jesus Christ and the Bible and that's all it doctrines but also we have differences. So we had a Protestant they are Catholic and Catholics, so those who are seeking administrative unity, this will not happen. I don't believe on this. I am a Protestant am an evangelical. And I'd like to continue this and I'm proud that an evangelical Protestant we live in the Middle East. I will not sacrifice my beliefs as a reformer, theologian and as a Protestant and evangelical but I respect but the only thing which we see is the unity between believers in every church and then every denominations.
It's been a tremendous pleasure today to be speaking with Reverend Andrea Stephanous, who holds many titles including President of the Coptic Evengelica organization for social services, president of the Protestant churches of Egypt and president of the fellowship of middle Middle East evengelical churches. He is also editor of the text that we've been discussing today, "Arabic Christian theology and contemporary global angelical perspective." Thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you very much for this time.