Gospel & Culture blog
by Kenneth Nehrbass
Dr Lamin Sanneh, Professor of History of Religion (Harvard) and then professor of World Christianity and History at Yale Divinity School, passed away this Jan 6.
Sanneh, originally from Gambia, converted from Islam to Catholicism. His academic career has focused on Islam and Christianity. He has authored over two hundred scholarly articles and of more than a dozen books on Islam and African expressions of Christianity. Additionally, he “is an editor-at-large for The Christian Century and a contributing editor for the International Bulletin of Missionary Research”(Bonk, 2003).
The first edition of Sanneh’s (1989) book Translating the Message enjoyed wide popularity among missiologists because it argued that Islam destroyed culture whereas Christianity preserves culture (often protesting colonialism) by encouraging contextual expressions of faith and vernacular Bible translations.
Sanneh’s argument was that missions is a twofold process of diffusion and translation (or vernacularization). Note how this is similar to Walls’ indigenizing and pilgrim principle. Sanneh argues that once the message has been translated, it becomes the property of the community that received it. Hence, the answer to his question Whose religion is Christianity? (Sanneh, 2003)is that it belongs to the communities of faith.
Sanneh maintained that no culture is so advanced and so superior that it can claim exclusive access or advantage to the truth of God, and none so marginal and remote that it can be excluded. (Sanneh, 2008, p. 25)
Sanneh (1989) theorized that the an ingenious aspect of Christianity is that it is infinitely translatable, unlike Islam, which is so tied to Arabic and Mecca. In contrast, Christianity is fundamentally about God making himself known to every person in every context. As Walls (1996) put it, “Incarnation is translation. When God in Christ became man, Divinity was translated into humanity, as though humanity were a receptor language. Here was a clear statement of what would otherwise be veiled in obscurity or uncertainty, the statement ‘This is what God is like’ ” (p. 27).
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor