A few days ago, a friend sent me, via Whatsaap, a video footage that featured Bro. Daniel Owusu, a Presbyterian, who is challenging the aspect of the chorus of the song, ‘Ancient of Days.’ According to him, the chorus, ‘As old as you are’ is wrong, as it places God within the limit of time and space. He argued that the expression defaces and impugns on the eternity of God. The punishment for this blip, he alleged, is that the heavens are closed ‘and no prayer, no worship goes to heaven’ (to quote his words). He said that the chorus should rather be ‘as so as you are.’ Typical of most emotionally frenzied religious people, the background of the message had unseen charged prayer warriors praying. Imbuing the background with prayer was possibly done to provide the message with divine aura. What most Christians have worried over the message, inter alia, was his audacious claim that when we sing the chorus as we presently do, ‘as old as you are,’ the heavens are closed; God closes his ears to all forms of prayer and worship. His source of authority and the legitimization of his caution is revelation: God spoke to him. In this piece, I want to engage his caution from a close analysis of some aspect of theology and the limitedness of human language.
It is not difficult to critique his caution from the point of view of the Bible. Bible cautions Christians to test every prophecy and revelation, using the Bible as the canon (I John 4:1; II Timothy 3:16). Following the canonisation of the Bible, the Triune God has placed a seal on all forms of revelation or prophecy that do not conform to the whole teaching of the Bible (Revelation 22:18-19). Over the years, some cults of Christianity have emerged, who are implicitly or explicitly, challenging the cardinal teachings of the Bible. Consequently, it is important for all Christians to use the Bible as the measure of any truth claim, including that of Bro. Daniel Owusu.
There are many flaws in Bro. Daniel Owusu’s alleged revelation. Basically, he failed to acknowledge the limit of human language in capturing and fathoming the world. In our daily expressions, we say things that do not reflect the ontological nature of the things we describe. For example, we often say that the sun rises from the East and falls in the West. Basic geography informs us that the sun does not move. It is rather the earth that revolves around the sun. The use of the expression, ‘the sun rises from the East and falls in the West,’ is not necessarily meant to capture the existential reality of the sun. It is simply how human beings observe the sun in their daily activities. We also have an expression that, ‘opportunity comes, but once.’ This statement when taken at face value creates problems. This is because the import of the expression is not to say that once we miss an opportunity we may not have any opportunity again. It simply connotes that opportunities are hard to come by, and so we should be diligent enough to utilize every opportunity at our disposal.
These difficulties is compounded by the fact that Bro. Daniel Owusu failed to recognise the functionality of human language as the vehicle through which culture travels. When we use our vocal power to convey a message, we are also conveying particular cultural beliefs and practices. Among the Akan, when a chief dies, the common expression that is rendered is, ‘The chief has gone to the village.’ This expression falls deeper into Akan cosmogony about death. Death for the Akan is not extinction, but transition to another world: ‘asamando’. The material world is believed to be the prototype of ‘asamando’, hence the idea of the hereafter as another village. While this may pose a challenge to the materialist or empiricist, it makes a complete sense to Akan culture about death and reincarnation. What this means is that anyone who seeks to understand the Akan euphemism about the dead, must also have knowledge about Akan beliefs about death. There are many euphemisms about other aspects of life among the Akan. For example, there are euphemisms about pregnancy, birth, and menstruation. Sometimes these euphemisms are framed around verbal taboos.
The use of these expressions and euphemisms are meant to help human beings make sense of the universe. While human language may be limited in capturing the ontologies of nature, we are gifted to name things (Genesis 2:19-20). It is on the basis of the limitedness of human language that some linguists have argued that words are arbitrary. Apart from onomatopoeic, there is mostly no direct connection between words and the object they represent. For example, there is no correlation between the word cup and the object they represent. It is on the basis of the arbitrariness of words that we have many words in different languages and dialects representing the same object.
With the above background, I want to draw examples from the Bible to strengthen my argument. In the Bible, there are many expressions that when taken literally undermine the existential nature of God. In describing how God was disappointed about how sin had crept deeply into the world, the author of Genesis reported that, ‘God REGRETTED that He had made human beings on earth, and His heart was deeply troubled’ (Genesis 6:6, emphasis mine). When God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, again, the author records that, ‘And the Lord said, because the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is exceedingly grievous; I will go down now and SEE whether they have done altogether as is the cry of it which has come to Me; and if not I WILL KNOW’ (Genesis 18:20-21, emphasis mine). There are many of such statements in the Bible, but for the purposes of space, the two examples should suffice.
Obviously, if one takes the above expressions literally, one would have to redefine one’s theological stance from theism to deism or what has become known as Open Theism. Deist and open theists, while believing in God, deny the omni-attributes of God. But if we go according to what the Bible tells about God, we know that He does not change His mind (Numbers 23:19), neither does He add nor decrease in knowledge (John 16:30). In that sense, it is difficult to conclude on the above texts that God is both limited in knowledge and suffers from mood swing. In fact, the above attributes of ‘regret’ and ‘mood swing’ are essentially human. And since they are human, most Christian theologians have rightly reasoned that such expressions should be categorised as anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is attributing human traits, emotions, or intentions to God or non-human entities. The use of such expressions helps human beings to understand God at the level of human beings. It is simply bringing God closer to the level of understanding of human being (the finite comprehending the infinite).
The classical expression of anthropomorphism was the incarnation of God, recorded in Philippians 2:6-8 and I Timothy 3:16. In Philippians 2:6-8, we read:
Though He was God, He did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, He gave up His divine privileges; He took the humble position of a slave and was born as human. When He appeared in human form; He humbled Himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
And in I Timothy 3:16, we read:
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
What we gather so far from the above is that God is not limited necessarily by human language. When we sing the chorus ‘as old as you are,’ it must be understood in a context of ancient of days. The expression ‘Ancient of Days’ used in Daniel 7:21-22 refers to the timelessness of God. Scholars may disagree whether the persona being referred to in Daniel 7:21-22 is Jesus or not, but the basic understanding of the expression is that it captures the self-existing and timelessness of God. So, when Christians sing, ‘as old as you are,’ it is one of the ways of using human language to expresses the existential reality of God.
There is no need to debate over whether the expression is wrong or not; what matters is that our human language itself is limiting in encapsulating the ontological nature of God. Even so, God helped us to understand Him when He stepped into history over two thousand years ago. He said as we see Jesus, we see God (John 12:45); and trusting Him, we join the realm of eternity. We will be like Him, living forever in paradise restored.
Charles Prempeh (prempehgideon[email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra