How The Ethiopian Church Provided Global Inspiration for Indigenous Worship

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Historical records confirm that in an effort to transform the way people experienced worship, the Reformers drew inspiration and precedent from the eastern African church – the Ethiopian Church.

Thenceforth, from the first to the third generations worked diligently to transform the way in which people experienced worship.

Thereafter, local worship in local language began to trend.

Some had to go to church in a foreign language, day in and day out, without ever learning the language.

The Reformers of then saw it as an opportunity to carve out a place for vernacular language in church worship, which was essential for hearing and receiving the Gospel.

When the Council of Trent (1545-1563) responded to Protestantism by insisting on the necessity of the Latin Vulgate in worship — something that would not change until Vatican II—the third-generation Reformer (and successor to John Calvin) Theodore Beza turned to the Eastern (Ethiopian) branches of the church.

He used their positive ethnocentrism to present a forceful precedent that was both historical and contemporary.

Beza made his case for vernacular Bibles in the preface to the most important French translation of the Bible that was printed in Geneva: the 1588 French Geneva Bible.

Beza believed that the Bible’s preservation in diverse languages — Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Latin — was a marvelous sign of God’s faithfulness to the church over the centuries.

It was material evidence of how God’s power could overcome the machinations of the Devil. Like Luther before him, Beza treated the rediscovery of the original languages of Scripture as a God-ordained transformation for the church.

The diversity of language was a sign of God’s intention to bring salvation to a diversity of people. Beza took care to emphasize that every single person was intended to “hear” God’s speech, no matter their nationality, condition, sex, or age. With this point, Beza meaningfully stressed the inclusion of women and children, and he cited a litany of support from other church fathers.

However, Shifting the language of worship was not a walk in the park. It required transforming liturgy, introducing congregational singing, altering the observance of the sacraments, elevating the sermon, and promoting the reading of Scripture to an oral form.

All these alluded to the fact that Reformation was in many ways a language event, and the global church was right at the center of that event.

When the Reformers looked at the Bible, they saw the global story of the church represented through languages. They rediscovered Greek and also came to learn Hebrew as the first step toward restoring the true gospel.

By their own accounts, the Latin language had become a Tower of Babel that could only be overcome by translating the whole of Scripture into vernacular languages.

The Reformation was a Pentecost moment in their minds, restoring what God had originally intended for a worldwide church. They wanted to uncover the foundation of Scripture for one main purpose: pastoral ministry.

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