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«Chapter 7 THEOLOGICAL REFLECTION ON ANCESTOR WORSHIP 7.1 INTRODUCTION For the purpose of this study, the emphasis was on the religious nature and ...»

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Chapter 7




For the purpose of this study, the emphasis was on the religious nature and functions

of ancestor worship. The underlying religious phenomena of animism, shamanism and

totemism also received attention. While considering the phenomenon of ancestor worship in Africa, Korea and Japan we focused on two dimensions, namely the social function and the religious significance of ancestor worship, as well as the accompanying rituals in each of these contexts.

This chapter is devoted to a theological reflection on these elements. It will be done against the backdrop of the relationship between ancestor worship and Christianity, focused by the ministerial and missiological concerns motivating this study in the first place. It will be addressed in the last section of this chapter.

Consequently, the following questions need to be addressed:

• Does ancestor worship constitute a form of idolatry?

• Is it at all possible to integrate ancestor worship and Christianity?

• What are the differences in cosmology between traditional religions and Christianity?

• How do contextualised theologies deal with these issues and what hermeneutical problems do emerge?

• How have the Catholic and Protestant churches addressed the matter of veneration of the ancestors and/or saints?

• What are the implications of inculturation as a missiological principle?

• What is the appropriate model for missionaries and churches to follow when faced with ancestor beliefs and rituals?

These questions are directly related to the hermeneutical problems in African and Japanese indigenous churches which have been discussed at length in Chapters 3 and 5 respectively. Consequently, this matter will not be explored here again. However, the particular religious elements specific to ancestor worship which threatens the essential character of Christianity and Christian worship needs to be discussed. This is a very relevant issue because not only African and Japanese indigenous churches but also Korean Churches have been influenced by the cosmology espoused by traditional and folk religions (Chae 2002, Mullins 2004, Bediako 1995).

7.2 ANCESTOR WORSHIP: A CRITICAL EVALUATION*% At the heart of the controversy over the practices of ancestor worship is the theological questions around the notion of idolatry and whether or not ancestor worship is in fact a form of idolatry (if viewed from Christian perspective). The notion that ancestor worship is a form of idolatry has been the main objection of Christians against the practices of ancestor worship over centuries.

However, Fasholé-Luke (1974:211) suggests that “the worship offered to God and that offered to the ancestors can exist side by side without contradiction or idolatry,” meaning that ancestor worship does not constitute idolatry and therefore is not in conflict with worshipping God.

However, in order to determine whether or not ancestor worship is a form of idolatry, one has to examine what the Bible says about idolatry and whether a Biblical definition of idolatry can be reconstructed. Therefore, one needs to examine the meaning of the first commandment. Is ancestor worship a form of idolatry and therefore incompatible with Christianity or is it merely a form of veneration or a social-ethical expression of filial piety?

7.2.1 The first two commandments: A clear prohibition of idolatry According to Rosner (1999:21-30) the theological foundation for the judgment and outright rejection of idolatry is the fact that God is a jealous God. The belief that any form of idolatry rouses God’s jealousy is found consistently in the Old Testament. This notion is continued in the Second Commandment (cf. Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:8-10) and Exodus 34:14 which clearly states: “… for you shall worship no other god, because the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” Furthermore it gives an explanation of the adjective “jealous”, and it explains the divine name, “Jealous”.

However, the admonition in Exodus 20:3: “… you should not have any gods before me,” does not mean that it denies the existence of gods other than the true God. Instead it appears to indicate that if these other gods did exist, none of them should be given the worship which is owing to the true God. This implies a prohibition on idolatry because God is said to be jealous when worship which is owing to Him is given to idols *% + : 3 ! "" $* ).&

–  –  –

or false gods. This is why it is not possible to define idolatry without reference to our attitude toward the image that represents the divine. Worship and idolatry are thus inseparable as Lee (1991:83) points out. Consequently, one has to take a closer look at how to define idolatry.

7.2.2 Towards a narrow definition of idolatry When attempting to define Idolatry, one must bear in mind that it is essentially a term determined by perspective. In other words, in the Christian paradigm, idolatry denotes a cult or form of worship which is not part of the main stream or true religion. In Christian terms, idolatry then means a form of worship, adoration or veneration of images or material objects as symbolic manifestations of the deities or “gods”. Thus, the term can be extended to refer to the gods or dieties represented by the idol or object cpmcerned.

The first two commandments of the Decalogue prohibit quite clearly any form of idolatry including worshipping other gods and images (Exodus 20:1-2). Furthermore, Deuteronomy 17:2-7 stipulates that those who practise idolatry should face punishment by death. Idolatry in the Old Testament There are numerous accounts of idolatry in the Old Testament and it was more often than not associated with an object before which people practised acts of worship. In this regard, Comfort (1993:424) indicates that the accounts mentioned in the Old Testament which refer to idolatry generally refer to Israel’s pagan neighbours who followed a polytheistic religion based on physical images or representations of the deities they worshipped, specifically in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Canaan (cf. Genesis 31:19, 34;

Numeri 33:52; Deuteronomy 29:17). The Old Testament accounts indicate that these nations believed that the idols or images of the deities were actual manifestations of the god they worshipped. By implication, they thus believed that the image possessed some power, presence and personality of the god (cf Isaiah 46:1-2).

Comfort (1993:424) further argues that Isreal too was tempted to commit idolatry and turned away from God. There are accounts in the Bible which describe times when the Israelites created new idols of deities they had adopted and made sacrifceces and performed acts of worship to them (cf. Deuteronomy 32:15–18; Jeremiah 44:15–19).

The prophets who witnessed these acts of apostasy against God declared these idols impotent and objects of wood and stone which were to be viewed as insignificant (1 Chronicles 16:26, Isaiah 40:18–20). They frequently called upon the people to repent and return to God and warned of God’s imminent judgement if they did not (Isaiah 1:16–19, Isaiah 10:10–11; Jeremiah 9:15–16). The prophets like Isaiah and others ridiculed and scorned the vanity and emptiness of bowing down before images of wood and stone as recorded in Isaiah 2:8; 40:18-26; 41:1-2; 46:1-2 and 50:18-20.

Gehman (1999:73) points out bowing to idols or practising acts of idolatry constitute a form of spiritual adultery as Deuteronomy 31:16, Judges 2:17 and Hosea 1:2 points out. The spiritual evils which the idols represent make them an abomination to the Lord (Deuteronomy 7:25) and a detested thing (Deuteronomy 29:17).

Futhermore Gehman (1989:231) looks at the use of related concepts and terms in the Old Testament and points out that there is some controversy in the translation and denotation of meaning. Most notable he argues that • !; is understood to denote “nought, vanity, iniquity and wickedness.” This term only occurs in Isaiah 66:3 to refer to an “idol.” The intended meaning here appears to be that an idol is empty, nothing, vain, false and wicked.

• = on the other hand is understood to denote filth and impurity. According to Gehman (1989:231) it refers to the immoral rites associated with idolatry and hence to ceremonial uncleanness (Ezekiel 37:23; Nahum 3:6).

• = as used in Ezekiel 6:4-6; 9; 13 means “droppings of dung”.

• :on the other hand, means a thing of nought, a good for nothing, a something that does not exist. This word is not only used for the images but for the pagan deities themselves as reflected in Psalm. 96:5; 97:7. Idolatry in the New Testament When one examines the accounts of idolatry in the New Testament one must bear in

mind that the New Testament is founded on the revelation of God given in the Old Testament and the translation of the Septuagint translation into Greek. Gehman (1985:

232) points out that both the Old and New Testament are consistent in their condemnation of worship of false or heathen gods. Consequently, Paul states: “We know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and there is no God but one,” (1 Corinthians. 8:4) and therefore asserts that idols are only products of human sin and folly (Romans 1:23; Gal. 4:8).

Numerous scholars (Unger 1981, Gehman 1999, Comfort 1993) have pointed out that in the New Testament idolatry is understood in a broader application than mere bowing down before an idol. Unger (1981:512) points out that the New Testament’s notion of idolatry is also figurative and can be understood to include an undue obsession with any object less than God. Therefore, idolatry in the general sense would be paying of divine honours to any created thing or the ascription of divine power to natural agencies.

Gehman (1999:74) appears to follow the same reasoning because he points out that a person who becomes enslaved to the pursuit of riches may also find himself guilty of idolatry. Thus, Matthew 6:24 states that “no man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” In this regard Comfort (1993:425) states that “covetousness” constitutes idolatry. In this regard, he refers to Ephesians 5:5 which makes it clear that idolaters are not only those individuals who go to pagan temples to worship false idols but also includes those who are greedy or covetous: “No fornicator or impure person or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (NRSV). It stands to reason then that greedy, covetous persons, those who make their desires their object of devotion, are as guilty of idolatry as those who bow before an idol in a pagan temple. In this context, Comfort (1993:425) argues that pleonexia (“covetousness”) and eid lolatria (“idolatry”) are used synonymously (cf. also Col 3:5).

This is borne out by Gehman (1999:74) who argues that participation in heathen feasts were generally accompanied by immorality. Participation in such feasts constituted idolatry and the sin was compounded by the immorality associated with it and was therefore forbidden to Christians (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). Immorality and idolatry have been linked. Sexual immorality was generally one of the main attractions of idolatry in the past as reflected in Scriptures such as 1 Kings 14:23, Amos 2:7-8 and 1 Corinthians 10:7-8. As Gehman (1999:74) points out, it is hardly surprising that idolatry was frequently associated with admonitions against immorality in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:9; Galatians 5:20; Ephesians 5:5; 1 Peter 4:3; Revelation 21:8).

If one bears this description in mind, it is clear that the practices associated with ancestor cults cannot be excluded from idolatry. This means that any honours (owing to God) paid to an idea, ideology, entity, object or person other than God constitutes a form of idolatry. Therefore, paying homage to a human being or venerating a person (or the memory of such person) in a way which should be exclusive to God, makes such an individual guilty of idolatry. Furthermore, ascribing divine characteristics to a person (even a deceased one) constitutes also a form of idolatry. In essence then, individuals who venerate the ancestors in a worshipful manner practice worship and therefore idolatry. This raises another question: is there a difference between worship and veneration?

7.2.3 Worship or veneration?

One of the key issues in terms of ancestor veneration or worship centres around the practices in Africa and the controversy around whether or not the practices should be considered veneration or worship. Do Africans worship the ancestors or simply remember and honour them as some scholars (West 1975:185-187; Kuckertz 1981:10-11;

Nxumalo 1981:73) suggest?

Some African scholars (Nyirongo 1997:37-40) have attempted to justify the use of

ancestor rituals as a merely social or cultural phenomenon on the grounds that veneration cannot be considered idolatry. The reasons for this assertion are:

• that the persons performing the rituals to the ancestors deny that they worship the ancestors;

• secondly, they are venerating intermediaries and not gods;

• Africans never worshipped man-made objects; and lastly

• sacrifices to ancestors are a symbol of fellowship.

Hence Crafford (1996:16) argue that “it is incorrect to speak of worshipping of forefathers. They are not worshipped as gods, but are only honoured as members of the community, now only with higher status and power.” Crafford thus distinguishes between worship rendered only to God and veneration rendered to the ancestral spirits.

Gehman (1985:377) argues that the same applies to Roman Catholics. Catholics

draw a clear distinction between the levels of honour given:

• Cultus civilis denotes “civil honour” which is given to earthly superiors, such as magistrates and kings.

• Douleia or veneration is given to the saints and angels.

• Hyperdouleia or highest veneration is offered to the Virgin Mary.

• Latreia or worship is paid to God alone.

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