I wrote this paper for a recent Northern Training Institute Seminar Day. My original conclusion is included in a footnote. As we discussed the issue a different conclusion came out and so I’ve tried to rewrite it accordingly. Any suggestions or thoughts, especially from those in the context I’m writing about, please make them!


Evaluate the significance of Paul Hiebert’s understanding of the ‘excluded middle’.


This issue is of particular interest to me coming to a context in South Africa where animism or ‘traditional religion’ (a more neutral term favoured by some[1]) is very much part of the culture among the indigenous peoples. In recent years there has been a massive increase, especially in sub-Saharan Africa of converts to Christianity. John Mbiti writes: “In 1900 there were an estimated 9 million Christians (accounting for about 7 per cent of the population of Africa). This number has since grown rapidly, to the point that in 1980 there are estimated to be 200 million Christians (or about 45 per cent of the population).”[2]  By the year 2000 one statistic that was given was that there were 380 million Christians in Africa.

However with this massive growth have come questions about the interrelation between traditional African religion and Christianity. John Mbiti has written extensively on the subject and is a great advocate for the commonality between African religion and Christianity. The problem has come because many people have taken Jesus as Lord, but still visit the witch doctor for protection. As Bryant Myers notes: “People try to live as Christians in their spiritual life and be like good moderns in their material life, while still being bound to their animism. This explains the actions of some Christians who go to their doctor for medical advice, ask the church to pray for healing, and visit the shaman at night.”

What has gone wrong with the preaching of the gospel in these contexts that has resulted in such a seemingly compartmentalised life? Paul Hiebert, followed by Bruce Bradshaw and Byrant Myers argue that the problem has resulted in not understanding the worldview and context of the people the gospel has been taken to, and thus not addressing every area that needs addressing.

According to them there is a blind spot that Westerners have to a very significant area of life for many people in the world (not just in Africa). The result is that of the ‘excluded middle’.

The Flaw of the Excluded Middle

According to Paul Hiebert in the West we work on a two tiered view of reality. Before the 17th and 18th centuries the world could be understood on three levels. God/religion etc at the top, the spirit world/superstition/popular religion in the middle and experience on the lowest level. The top level dealt with the spiritual, and the lower two levels engaged with day to day life. However after this time science based on materialistic naturalism has taken precedent over the lower two levels. Belief in a spirit world has died out (to some extent). The result is that there is an ‘excluded middle’. Science has been secularised and religion mystified. Science has become the world of certitude, based on mechanistic analogies, whereas religion is the world of ‘faith’ and described with organic analogies.[4]

Many societies, however, have not made this move and still retain the ‘middle’ and thus have a three tiered view of reality. For them the world of spirits and witch-doctors and ancestors still play a very active role in day to day life. They must be appeased and bargained with or protected against if crops are going to succeed, children are to be born and survive and if life is to go well. The middle level deals with questions of “the uncertainty of the future, the crisis of present life, and the unknowns of the past. Despite knowledge of facts [that science can provide] such as that seeds once planted will grow and bear fruit, or that travel down this river on a boat will bring one to the neighbouring village, the future is not totally predictable. Accidents, misfortunes, the intervention of other persons, and other unknown events can frustrate human planning.”

The two understandings can be described as below.


Modern Worldview


Traditional Worldview


The problem is that because in the west we have excluded this middle level when engaging with these cultures no answer is given to the questions outlined above, because there is no framework with which to recognise there is even a question to be answered. As Hiebert asks, “What is a Christian theology of ancestors; of animals and plants; of local spirits and spirit possession; and of principalities, powers, and rulers of the darkness of this world (Eph. 6:12)?”
[6] These are not questions we often engage with, but they are the questions at the forefront of many people from traditional religious backgrounds. The result is that “Given no answer, they return to the diviner who gives definite answers, for these are the problems that loom large in their every day life.”[7]

Myers comments that if the gospel is preached as only dealing with ‘spiritual’ truth then whole areas of life can remain untouched, and it may be thought that there is no good news for those areas. The result is what Myers calls an ‘incomplete conversion of worldview’.

He presents another table to illustrate this:


Traditional Worldview


Partial Christian Worldview


It is quite clear then that there is a whole area of life that needs to be addressed when communicating the gospel in such contexts. Hiebert calls for a holistic theology that deals with all areas of life.

The holistic view presented by Hiebert and later Myers is that the gospel answers each level distinctly. For Hiebert the top level is that of a ‘truth encounter’. Here there must be a theology of God ‘in cosmic history’.[10] The bottom level includes an awareness of God in natural history, sustaining all things.[11] The middle level presents God in human history, ‘in the affairs of nations, of peoples, and of individuals’.[12] It is here that issues of divine guidance, provision and healing, ancestors, spirits and invisible powers are addressed. He writes, “It is no coincidence that many of the most successful missions have provided some form of Christian answer to middle-level questions.”[13]

Myers takes this a step further. For him the question being asked in the middle level is that of power.
[14] All three levels are connected and it is the gospel that interacts with all of them.[15]


The Modern Worldview


The Biblical Worldview


Myers argues that all three levels must work together. Our words must be accompanied by signs and deeds to verify what we say.

However there must be words as signs on their own can be ambiguous. He also notes that to truly engage with the animist question of who is more powerful we cannot simply answer that with ‘the gospel-as-word’. He notes that “The fact that charismatic and Pentecostal folk have an answer for this question is a major part of the reason they are the fastest growing expression of church today.”[16]

In conclusion Myers writes:

Therefore, in dealing with the gospel message, we cannot separate word, deed, and sign without truncating our message. Words clarify the meaning of deeds. Deeds verify the meaning of words. Most critically, signs announce the presence and power of the One who is radically other and who is both the true source of all good deeds and the author of the only words that bring life in its fullest.


The Flaw of the Flaw of the Excluded Middle


Both Hiebert and Myers’ recognition of the ‘middle’ is extremely helpful in seeking to engage fully with those from a ‘traditional religious’ background. It is quite clear that failure to do so results in compartmentalised lives that leave whole areas unaffected by the gospel. For many Western Christians they would not know where to begin in addressing this issue and so Hiebert, Myers and others should be applauded for seeking to provide a holistic approach that shows how the gospel engages with every area of life.[18]

Indeed some of their conclusions appear to be quite correct. Judging from the life and ministry of Jesus and the apostles, miracles, signs and wonders, and exorcisms etc. appear part and parcel of, certainly the initial, taking of the gospel to the world. The spiritual forces that once held people captive are defeated and shown to be nothing against the name of Jesus.[19] In 2 Corinthians 12:12 Paul sees signs and wonders and mighty works as the signs of a true apostle. The gospel of Jesus meets the level of spirits that hold people in bondage head on. It is the power of the name of Jesus that releases people from that bondage into freedom in God’s kingdom. Satan no longer has dominion over God’s people. As Hiebert writes: “In confronting animistic worldviews, our central message should always focus on the greatness, holiness and power of God and his work in human lives. It is he who delivers us from the power of the evil one and gives us the power to live free, victorious Christian lives.”[20] All of this is a taste of what is to come in the new creation where there will be no sickness or dying or evil. Jesus’ life and ministry were a glimpse into and the inauguration of that[21]. To this point we would contend that Hiebert and Meyer are correct. The gospel encounters the powers of the spirit world with a greater power and this can be demonstrated in dramatic fashion in miracles and the like.


However it is at this point that Meyer seems to stop. For Meyer the middle level has been addressed and nothing more needs to be said.

Despite the fact that Paul says that his signs and wonders are authentication of his apostleship he makes the extraordinary claim at the beginning of 1 Corinthians that “
I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Paul has already said that he knows the Jews want signs (1:22) and he has given them signs, and yet he makes a point here of saying that he knew ‘nothing’ among them except Christ and him crucified.

The situation in Corinth with the Jews sounds similar to that encountered with traditional religions. Spirits hold great sway. If the gospel is going to be seen to triumph in that situation it appears that it must show itself to have greater power with miraculous signs. This is precisely what Hiebert and Meyers propose and we have agreed is the method of Jesus and the apostles. The problem is if this becomes the end point. The Jews appear to be in danger of demanding that the gospel be on their terms, in a way that is acceptable to them (as were the Greeks in another way). However Paul says, ‘the heart of the gospel is not what you expect. Do you want power? I’ll present to you the weakness of the cross. Do you want wisdom? I will present to you the foolishness of the Son of God being killed on a tree.’ Paul meets the Corinthians where they are at, with displays of God’s power in miracles, but he is not content to leave them there. Rather he takes them further, to the heart of the gospel which is found in the weakness of the cross. This then redefines the categories of power and wisdom previously held[22].

The cross is the unifying theme that joins each of the levels in the table presented by Meyers. The cross makes sense of the top level – the nature and truth of God. It displays to us his character in justice and mercy. The cross makes sense of the bottom level. It shows us where the gospel meets real life. It explains to us what our lives are meant to look like – self-sacrificial, loving and other-person centred. And finally the cross makes sense of the ‘excluded middle’. Jesus and the apostles do show how the name of Jesus is more powerful than any evil spirit. But then Paul says ‘Do you want to know what real power looks like? Then look at the weakness of the cross.’ The power to break the power of Satan is found ultimately in the weakness of the cross. That is where Jesus destroys death and any dominion Satan may have over us.

The gospel that is centred on the cross is going to meet every level presented in this paper. We must take the gospel to where people are at and show that our God is greater, he is more powerful as evil cannot stand against him, he does make sense of and show us how to live in everyday life. This may mean illustrating these truths in displays of miracles as God allows. However we must show the people we are seeking to reach all of these things in the shadow of the cross. We must show how the cross explains the nature of our greater God, how it displays real power and wisdom and how it shapes and defines every aspect of our lives.



Boafo, Ebenezer Communicating the message about Jesus to African Traditional Religionists


Chester, Tim, Lecture 8: Cross-Cultural Communication


Hiebert, Paul, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998)


Mbiti, John The Encounter of Christian Faith and African Religion www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1746


Myers, B. L., Walking with the Poor (Orbis: New York, 1999)

[1] Boafo, Ebenezer Communicating the message about Jesus to African Traditional Religionists, p. 1. He writes: “…important writers on African religions such as Kwesi Sarpong, Bolaji Idowu and John Mbiti have used the designation ‘traditional religions’.”

[2] Mbiti, John The Encounter of Christian Faith and African Religion http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1746

[3] Myers, B. L., Walking with the Poor (Orbis: New York, 1999) p. 239

[4] Hiebert, Paul, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998), pp. 196-197

[5] Ibid., p. 197

[6] Ibid., p. 198

[7] Ibid.

[8] Myers, p. 238

[9] Hiebert, p. 198

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 199

[12] Ibid., p. 198

[13] Ibid., p. 199

[14] Myers, p. 9

[15] Ibid., p. 8

[16] Myers, p. 9

[17] Ibid., p.10

[18] [This was my original conclusion, which changed as we discussed the issue in our seminar group.] However, whilst the task is laudable, it has to be said that there appear to be some significant flaws in the conclusions drawn. We have to ask what is the gospel that ends up being presented as it engages with the questions of truth, power and action?

Boafo explains that for the traditional religionist the creator God is detached from his world; “He has withdrawn from activity and rules by delegated authority through lesser gods, ancestors, and the family.”[18] In some senses this is similar to the western ‘deist’ understanding of God. He may have created the world, but he is detached from it. Hiebert argues that we must avoid the mistake of leaving God out of the middle level, much as the traditional religionists do. He makes the case for a theology centred on God, God dealing with man and how he relates to us, not about ways we can control him for our purposes.[18] The problem is, in Myers presentation we seem to end up with precisely what Hiebert wants to avoid. For Myers the middle level, in the Christian worldview, is occupied by angels, prayer and visions, sacred space and signs and wonders. It looks like a Christianised form of what was happening in the traditional worldview. Instead of spirits, of lesser gods being the intermediaries, angels are. The power that spirits have over people are countered by miracles. The folk religion seems to be replaced by ‘sacred space’. Although Hiebert wants to avoid making Christianity “a new magic in which we as gods can make God do our bidding”[18] he still presents God as providing the very power the spirits promised, albeit at his bidding, and not ours. So Hiebert writes: “In confronting animistic worldviews, our central message should always focus on the greatness, holiness and power of God and his work in human lives. It is he who delivers us from the power of the evil one and gives us the power to live free, victorious Christian lives.”[18] This statement is of course partly true. God is powerful, he does free us from the power of the evil one. The problem is that language of living ‘victorious Christian lives’ may give the impression that the kind of victory over spiritual forces that was previously promised by the shaman are now possible through Christ. The gospel now becomes that which provides what the traditional religion promised, but could not deliver, since the gospel is the truth. There is victory in Jesus, but what kind of victory needs to be explained to avoid it being simply incorporated into a previously held worldview.

But is the gospel ultimately about power and victory? How does the gospel answer the question of ‘the excluded middle’?

First we must say that the gospel is in fact much more holistic than even Myers table appears to allow. For Myers, as has already been said, angels seem to occupy the middle level as intermediaries. Jesus occupies the top level as risen Lord, and the bottom level as being ‘in us’. But the incarnation, (which interestingly Myers notes as being a unifying theme, but does not seem to incorporate in his table[18]) presents Jesus, not angels as the intermediary between us and God. As Tim Chester points out, angels are not emphasised in the Bible and carry a role primarily of messenger, God is the agent. In fact Paul warns against an overemphasis on angels in Colossians.[18]

As intermediary Jesus also shows us how the gospel engages with the powers of the world. Jesus does demonstrate what his kingdom is like in his miracles of healing and care in the gospels. He shows that God has power to redeem and restore his creation. However the twist in the story comes when God’s power is ultimately shown in the weakness of the cross.  


For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor. 1:18)


It is the weakness of the cross that is the power of restoration and redemption, demonstrated in the miracles. According to Paul the Greeks were looking for a show of wisdom, but this is not what the gospel gives them. The Jews, it seem, want a show of power,[18] but again the gospel does not give them what they expect. In one sense the gospel is wisdom and it is power, but it is God’s wisdom and God’s power, not worldly wisdom or power. This appears to be integral to God’s mission strategy as a whole:


But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor. 1:27-29)


The nature of the gospel and God’s approach to mission naturally impacts and shapes Paul’s approach to mission. He wants to present himself in such a way that illustrates what the gospel is about. So he presents himself as weak. He wants to give them a show of the spirits power (2:4) but if all he ‘knew’ while he was with them was Jesus Christ crucified then it must be in this show of weakness that God’s power is truly seen. As Chester writes: “We demonstrate power not through ‘power encounters’, but by proclaiming and living the weakness of the cross…”[18]

What does this mean to our approach to the African context? It may well mean that there are not so many ‘conversions’ as there have been previously. My concern with Myers’ use of the growth of the Pentecostal church as anecdotal evidence of his approach being correct is that what is actually happing is that the people are receiving yet another Christianised form of their own religion. But if the gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, and a stumbling block for the Jews, will it not produce a similarly antagonistic response in some traditional religionists? The gospel does answer the problem of the excluded middle, but not with a like-for-like response. As with all cultures the gospel challenges some of the fundamentals of our worldviews (including the West’s). We have constructed ways of understanding the world, and expectations of how God might act if he were to step into that construction. If we present a gospel where God meets those expectations it is likely it is going to be received more easily and readily. Indeed we must engage with the worldviews of those we are speaking to. For the traditional religionist we must engage with the issue of how God engages and relates to everyday life. But it is the gospel outlined in 1 Corinthians 1-2 that meets that ‘excluded middle’. It is the incarnate Son who bridges the link between the top level and the bottom level of everyday life. But he does so in a way that overturns our assumptions of how God would interact with our world. When Jesus stepped into our world he overturned many of those fundamentals. In him God presented a wisdom that appeared foolish, and a strength that appeared weak. That is the gospel we must live and proclaim to all cultures. That is the gospel that impacts every area of life.


[19] E.g. Mark 5:1-20; Acts 19:12

[20] Hiebert, p. 201

[21] Luke 4:18-19

[22] 1 Corinthians 1:18