Did you know, ‘super-natural’ is an invention of Western theologians?

I have often been struck, that in Africa we do not have a ‘supernatural’. That is, African people, Christians included, refer to things ‘supernatural’ in the same way as they do to things ‘natural’. (While the term ‘supernatural’ is used in some African Englishes, it does not mean ‘supernatural’. It is used like a euphemism for ‘God’, or ‘amazing’.)

“To protect the glory of God and to avoid making God’s actions contingent on the actions of created beings, the Reformers affirmed the concept of radical sovereignty against the medieval view of accommodating sovereignty, or cooperation,” Deason tells us (1986:170). So, 16th century reformers insisted for “an adequate understanding of [God’s] sovereignty, [on] the exclusion of any contribution to divine providence from human beings or nature” (1986:170). In other words, before the Reformation, God was seen as working with nature. After the reformation, he was understood as working apart from nature.

Perhaps, that was all very well at the time, when nature was loosely defined. Then, however, along came astronomy … ! Christian fervour was intense in Europe. God became very influential in people’s lives. Focusing on God honed people’s thinking. Some men studied nature. Zakai tells us that Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler (16th to 17th centuries), discovered “the first modern ‘laws of nature’,” (2007:136). When God had to be super-natural, this was inventing a hoop for God to jump through! As nature became ‘modern’, with more and more ‘modern laws’, it seemed to become more and more difficult for God to work independently from nature, i.e. to be supernatural. It was like the bar was raised and raised. Thus, we could say, God was compared unfavourably with scientists. It became more and more difficult (in the eyes of Western Protestants) for God to be God!

Hang on a minute, you may be thinking; why should God be expected to jump through these hoops in the first place? (After all, Luke 4:12 tells us “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”) Why can’t we simply expect God to cooperate with nature? After all, before and after the reformation, many non-Protestant Christians have continued to believe that God does just that. Again – there is no mention of supernatural in the bible. We have words like power (dunamis)) and healing or salvation (soter), but no implication that God must be other-than nature. In fact, that can’t have been there, as at the time, modern-nature wasn’t even recognised.

Perhaps, then, my African friends are correct, God doesn’t have to be ‘super-natural’ for us to believe in him. (It is scientists, actually, who require God to be ‘super-natural’, not Christians.) God only has to be: “I am who I am,” God said to Moses (Exodus 3:14).

See also this new book: Harries, Jim, 2017, The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock.



Deason, Gary B., 1986, ‘Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature,’ 167-191 in: Lindberg, David C., and Numbers, Ronald L., (eds.) 1986, God and Nature: historical essays on the encounter between Christianity and Science. London: University of California Press.

Zakai, Avihu, 2007, ‘The rise of modern science and the decline of theology as the ‘queen of sciences’ in the early modern era.’ Reformation and Renaissance Review, 9(2), 125-151.

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

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Jim Harries

Jim Harries

Jim Harries (PhD Theology, University of Birmingham, Professor of religion at Global University) teaches the bible in Western Kenya using the Luo and Swahili languages. His focus is on work with indigenous churches. He also works with orthodox and other mission churches. Many articles and books written by Jim can be found here. Having lived in East Africa since 1988, Jim promotes the practice of vulnerable mission. Jim has been a visiting scholar at Christian universities in the USA, Canada, UK and Germany.
Jim Harries

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