Why African Theology?

When I am asked what field of theology I would like to study one of the first things that comes to mind is African Theology. If I say that though, I am often met with surprise or suppressed dismay (that I have become liberal): “Why should African Theology be any different from any other theology?” they wonder. Surely theology is not geographically constrained? Surely…

I was recently in KwaZulu-Natal where I attended a lecture on Sanctification at the United Bible Institute (UBI). UBI caters for African pastors and while the lecture itself did not offer anything new or surprising (which is probably a good thing), the questions afterwards provide a useful case study. The lecture was sound and simple on the work of God in sanctification: It refuted sinless perfection but upheld holiness as the Christian’s goal. Afterwards a lady put up her hand (yes, like it or not, women are often the local preachers) to ask a question which I think brilliantly illustrates the need for African Theology.

The question was built on the following premise: “There was a person in our village who became a Christian but a witch came and stole her sanctification.” I am not sure about Asian Christians nor do I know much about South America or Indonesia all of which may well have similar issues but I am certain that in our Western theology such a question has never occurred to you. The possibility of sanctification being ‘stolen’ by forces of evil was a totally foreign notion to me and yet there was nodding of approval at the question.

The fact that Western Christians have dealt with many of their own issues does not mean that all the issues of Christianity have been thrashed out and we would probably never be so arrogant as to think so but pat answers from our Western framework will generally not suffice. Thankfully, the question was brilliantly answered but that question is not the only one that stems from an African context nor is it the most difficult to deal with. African Christianity is supposedly growing enormously but African Theology is not and so the church is already riddled with syncretism and false gospels. If the Gospel is to have an impact on Africa it must be the true Gospel, not a gospel cooked up and mixed together with traditional religions and prosperity preaching. That’s why we need African Theology. So that, African Christianity may be authentically Christian and authentically African. In the words of Byang Kato, “Let African Christians be Christian Africans”

How do African concepts of God relate to the God of the Bible?

A.W. Tozer (1994:11) famously suggests that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us”. I believe this assertion to be correct and so the question, “How do African concepts of God relate to the God of the Bible?” is most worthy of our consideration. In attempting to answer this question we will examine their similarities and differences, and then we will consider whether African concepts of God¹ are more similar or dissimilar to the God of the Bible.

At the outset I need to say that one of the major problems in a study such as this is its vastness. Attempting to distill the religious beliefs of about 1 billion people is no small task; especially when these people are at no point static in their beliefs. Thus, in this essay, the only plausible approach is to consider the views which hold a majority.

1. The Similarities Between the God of the Bible and the Supreme Being.

The most significant similarity between the African God and the Biblical God is the fundamental belief in a deity. Atheistic tendencies in Africa are minimal. O’Donovan (1995: 41) goes as far as suggesting that “there is probably no native-born African who is not aware of the existence of God”.

In addition to the belief in deity, the Supreme Being of Africa largely overlaps conceptually with the identity and work of the biblical God. The Supreme Being is personal in the sense of possessing personhood; therefore deity is referred to as a ‘He’ and not as an ‘it’ or a ‘power’ (Gehman, 2005: 319). This personhood is not seen to be manifested physically, but to exist spiritually. Thus, Gehman (2005: 316) succinctly states that, “God has no body; he is invisible”.

The Supreme Being is furthermore perceived as being the creator of the world. Thus everything in the spiritual, and the physical, world is the way it is today as a direct result of his action² (Kato, 1975: 31). Moreover, the Supreme Being sustains this world; that in the sense that he keeps everything which he made in existence at every given moment, and in the sense that he is seen to be the one who provides and protects this world³ (Mbiti, 1991: 49, 52).

From these two beliefs it naturally follows that the Supreme Being is seen as almighty; for he has the power to do anything he desires (O’Donovan, 1995: 41). Complimenting this power, the Supreme Being is seen to have complete knowledge (Mbiti, 1991: 56), to be present everywhere (O’Donovan, 1995: 41), and to be eternal (Nyirongo, 1997: 11).

The Supreme Being is likewise good (Mbiti, 1991: 55). By this Africans understand that God is not only kind, but that he does not do wrong. In contemplating this point Gehman (2005: 320) helpfully states, “Whatever tragedy is experienced is blamed on witchcraft or the living-dead. God is seldom charged with wrong doing in Africa”.

I have opted to not include the concept of transcendence under similarities for I believe it to be an area where African theologians have fundamentally misrepresented African religion, by “‘baptising’ the data in order to project a traditional religion that is compatible with Christianity” (Bowers, 2002: 118). It seems that we need to heed Turaki’s (1999: 149-150) warning to not violate Africa’s holistic view of the world by interpreting the Supreme Being’s transcendence in absolute terms. Rather, it seems that there is less of a chasm between God and the other spirit beings, and that the category used to understand the remoteness of the Supreme Being is not transcendence but differing communal responsibilities (Turaki, 1999: 156).

It is clear that there is much in common between the biblical view of God and the African concept of the Supreme Being. These similarities extend over both the character and the work of each deity. So the question needs to be posed, “Are there any differences between the God of the Bible and the gods of Africa? If so, what are they?”

2. The Differences Between the God of the Bible and the Supreme Being.

There are two major differences between the God of the Bible and the African concepts of God, which I will discuss. I have opted to include fewer differences not because there are not many, but because more explanation is required.

Firstly, the God of the Bible is different to the African gods in that he is knowable and relational. The problem with the African concepts of God is that they go no further than speculation. Indeed, they can go no further because, although humans can pray to the Supreme Being in certain situations (O’Donovan, 1995: 42), he never interacts with, or personally reveals himself to, the people of Africa (Turaki, 1999: 160). By this I am not suggesting that God has not revealed himself through what is commonly referred to as ‘general revelation’. I am suggesting, however, that verbal communication and personal relationship with the Supreme Being are not a reality for the African. Thus, in this area, we observe a stark contrast between the biblical God and the Supreme Being. Since the beginning of time the biblical God has revealed himself through communicating verbally with human beings; in fact, he has done so finally through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-4). In this communication he has told people what he is like and he has offered them the possibility of relationship. Thus, the God of the Bible is different to the Supreme Being of Africa in that he is knowable and relational.

Secondly, the God of the Bible is holy and just. Sin in the African worldview is against the community and not against God (Kato, 1975: 42). As a result, it is the community who is most offended, by these social ills, and it is they who take the responsibility to discipline the offender. Nyirongo (1997: 63) helpfully adds, “The responsibility belongs to those who are physically alive, but more especially to the ancestral spirits who are the custodians of the community”. Therefore we clearly see that it is not the Supreme Being who is offended by these social ills. Yet the Bible cannot conceive of the One True God like that. The biblical God says that sin is against him personally (Psalm 51:4), and causes him great offense (Hosea 9:15). Indeed, God promises that he is judging sin now (Romans 1:24) and will do so in a more comprehensive way in the future (2 Peter 3:7). Thus, in contrast to the humanistic view of sin in the African tradition, the God of the Bible is seen to be holy and just.

In light of the two points above, there do seem to be major differences between the African conception of the Supreme Being and the Christian conception of God. Yet, there are significant similarities at the same time. How, then, are we to think about the Supreme Being as Christians? Is their continuity or discontinuity greater, or more significant? Is the African concept of God an effective praeparateo evangelica for African Christianity? These are vital questions which we shall now consider.

3. Are The Similarities Or The Differences More Significant?

In reflecting on the world without God’s word, Romans 1:21 says that “although [people] knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened”.

From this verse two things are evident. Firstly, Africans do know something about God. Indeed, we must affirm that the Bible is correct when it asserts that God’s divinity and power have been plain since the creation of the world (Romans 1:19-20). Furthermore, due to the nature of the evidence, its scope must be universal; and so we cannot exclude Africans from this knowledge. God has not left himself without a witness in Africa; no, he has clearly spoken through what has been made. Therefore, we must affirm what is correct in the African conception of deity.

Secondly, Africans have distorted their knowledge of God. Although there is much in the Supreme Being which corresponds with the biblical conception of deity, Romans 1:21 argues that this knowledge has been illegitimately expanded and perverted. Therefore, Africa has effectively made its own God. Byang Kato (1985: 32) states this point with great clarity when he says, “Whatever rationalization we may try to make, the worship of gods in Africa is idolatry”. Thus, at the point where revelation from the deity becomes re-creation into a new deity, it becomes impossible to see the biblical God as a continuity of the African God (Turaki, 1999: 160).

Conclusion.

In light of the above it seems that we should affirm the similarities between the biblical God and the African God. These similarities are seen in the belief in the existence of a personal and spiritual deity who is the almighty creator, and the all-knowing, protecting provider. Moreover, he is good, eternal and omnipresent.

Yet, at the same time it must always be maintained that this is fundamentally a different God due to Africa’s distortion of general revelation. Examples of where this difference is manifested are, amongst others, holiness, justice, knowledge and relationship. Yet, these are surface cracks which reveal to us the much greater underlying problem of idolatry. As Christians we must believe that if Africa is to have any hope in God her God must be the God of the Bible. Therefore, we need to be aware of this idolatry and proclaim with great boldness the God of the Bible throughout Africa.

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¹ Discussions about ancestors, dynamism and spiritism are important but unfortunately fall outside the scope of this essay. Return to essay

² There is some argument about whether the Supreme Being created ex nihilo or merely organised some type of existing matter. Obviously you will find tribes subscribing to both sides of this argument. Either way, however, the world as we see it today is a direct result of the activities of the Supreme Being and so it is legitimate to say that he created this world. Return to essay

³ However, the dual activities of providing and protecting are not undertaken directly by the Supreme Being. Rather, the Supreme Being commissions other beings in the spiritual hierarchy to undertake these tasks. Return to essay

⁴ In fact, Nyirongo (1997: 16) states, “That God revealed Himself to the pre-Christian African generations cannot be denied. Also that he continues to speak to all the tribes of Africa who have not heard the Gospel can also not be denied”. By this he is asserting that God has revealed himself in a general way through what has been created and in that sense he has spoken and continues to speak to every African. Return to essay

⁵ It is worth noting that most conceive sin to be originally against the Supreme Being, and that is what plunged the world into its current state (Nyirongo, 1997: 61). Return to essay

⁶ It is worth quoting Nyirongo (1997: 16) on this point at length: “That God revealed Himself to the pre-Christian African generations cannot be denied. Also that he continues to speak to all the tribes of Africa who have not heard the Gospel can also not be denied. …The problem is not that God did not speak clearly to the African in the past: the problem is rather what the African did with the revelation he received from God. Instead of positively responding to it in faith, he resorted to idols”. Return to essay

⁷ It is worth bearing this in mind when examining Mbiti’s (1980) statement, “When we identify the God of the Bible as the same God who is known through African religion … we must also take it that God has had a historical relationship with African peoples. … Their history has a theological meaning. … In this case, so-called “salvation history” must widen its outreach in order to embrace the horizons of other peoples’ histories”. Notice that his argument is built on a fundamental continuity between the biblical God and the African God, and thus it is basically flawed. Return to essay

Bibliography:

  • BOWERS, P. 2002. African theology: its history, dynamics, scope and future. African Journal of Evangelical Theology, 21(2): 109-126.
  • GEHMAN, R.J. African traditional religion in biblical perspective. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.
  • KATO, B. 1975. Theological pitfalls in Africa. Kisumu, Kenya: Evangel Publishing House.
  • KATO, B. 1985. Biblical Christianity in Africa: a collection of papers and addresses. Africa Christian press.
  • MBITI, J. 1980. The encounter of Christian faith and African religion. [web:] http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1746. Date of access: 17 March 2010.
  • MBITI, J.S. 1991. Introduction to African religion. 2nd ed. Oxford, United Kingdom: Heinemann Educational Publishers.
  • NYIRONGO, L. 1997. The gods of Africa or the God of the Bible? The snares of African traditional religion in perspective. Cape Town, South Africa: Potchefstroom University.
  • O’DONOVAN, W. 1995. Biblical Christianity in African perspective. 2nd ed. Carlisle, UK : Paternoster Press.
  • SMITH, E.W. 1950. African ideas of God: a symposium. London: Edinburgh House press.
  • SPENCER, A.B. & SPENCER, W.D. eds. 2001. The global God: multicultural evangelical views of God. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI : BridgePoint Books.
  • TOZER, A.W. 1994. The knowledge of the holy. Carlisle, UK : OM Publishing.
  • TURAKI, Y. 1999. Christianity and African gods: a method in theology. Cape Town, South Africa: Potchefstroom University.

Can we call Jesus the proto-ancestor?

Black Jesus Pendant

The Jesus of Africa must be the Jesus of the Bible if Africa is to have any hope in God” (Krohn, 2007)

When we discuss how to authentically present Jesus in Africa we need to be clear what is at stake. Beyers & Mphahlele (2009: 42) helpfully remind us that this “is neither just about a new title for Jesus, an Africa-specific title, nor even an African metaphor used for Christ… . It is about an understanding of Christology and consequently an understanding of soteriology”. In light of this, we must do everything in our power to reach a thoughtful and biblical conclusion. So, this goal shall be our guide as we consider whether it is legitimate to present Jesus as the proto-ancestor.

An authentically African, and biblical, Christology.

Africa has been inestimably shaped by colonisation. This is a truth which deeply affects the topic at hand. It is fair to say that every aspect of African life has been in some way affected by this confrontation. Bowers (2002: 113-114) argues that this confrontation has, most importantly, “meant for Africa a deprivation … in fundamental self-understanding”. As a result, Africa wants to know who she is. This search has entered African Christianity and has taken hold of the central figure of Christian faith: Jesus. Africans want to know who He is to them and how they are to relate to Him.

This search for an authentically African Christology has resulted in many African theologians considering God’s work in Africa prior to the missionaries; specifically with regards to his work of revelation. While this is no place to discuss the complex issue of whether African Traditional Religions are an effective praeparateo evangelica, it is worth noting that this consideration has, at many points, created an overly positive view of the pre-Christian theological system of Africa. Thus, much modern literature examining questions, such as the one above, mingles African and biblical theology. In response to this, Bowers (2002: 123) suggests that “[It] is not enough to ask, as African Theology has rightly and insistently done, how may African Christianity become more authentically African? It must also insistently be asked how African Christianity may become ever more authentically Christian”. With this in mind, we have to consider whether it is most helpful, and biblically faithful, to present Jesus as the ‘proto-ancestor’. We will do this by critiquing the traditional African understanding of ancestors in light of the Bible.

African understanding of ancestors.

Nyamiti (cited in Beyers and Mphahlele, 2009: 38-39) notes some common traits of ancestral beliefs throughout the world. They say that, firstly, there is a natural understanding of relationship between ancestors and the living, similar to that of a parent-child relationship. Secondly, they tell us that it is believed that ancestors automatically acquire some kind of supernatural power after they die. Thirdly, ancestors are believed to be inferior to God and are not seen as sharing in the divine nature. Fourthly, they are believed to take part in the daily routine of the family. Lastly, they are considered exemplars of good human behaviour. This last point is, in fact, the reason they have become ancestors.

A more specific outline of the distinct function of ancestors in African Traditional Religions is given by Beyers and Mphahlele (2009: 39) in three points. Firstly they are seen as companions who give advice on the journey of life. Secondly, they mediate between God and humans. Thirdly, they are guardians of familial traditions and moral values.

While it would be impossible to examine each of these aspects in detail here, it would in the same way be superficial to deal in a broad way with these aspects and examine none of them in detail. As a solution we will consider the mediating role of the ancestors, since it is arguably the most significant aspect, as a way of covering at least some of this data in more detail.

The role of a mediator in Africa.[1]

Maganda (2002: 151) states that the ancestors are believed to be “protectors of their families who appear to [the family], notifying them of imminent peril and reproving those who failed to follow their directives”. From this we should note that they are human beings who have gained greater power, and closer proximity to the Supreme Being, after death. They are furthermore understood to use this power over the physical world and thus the “whole range of human success and misfortune is subject to [them]” (Maganda, 2002: 152). It is, therefore, clear that they mediate authority and power (Kabasele, 1991: 120). In light of this it is true to describe the interaction of Africans with their ancestors, by means of ‘worship’ and rituals, as manipulative attempts to secure their good will (Maganda, 2002: 152, 161).

The biblical role of a mediator.

In the New Testament, the word mediator, μεσιτης, is used in two ways. Firstly, mediators function to “intervene between two parties in order to promote relations between them which the parties themselves are not able to effect… the mediator effects reconciliation” (NBD, 1996: 746); this is seen most clearly in 1 Timothy 2:5. Notice also that the reason mediation was needed was because of man’s sin, as this had brought about alienation between man and God (Eph. 2:1-3). Secondly, a mediator is “one who acts as a ‘guarantee’ so as to secure something which otherwise could not be obtained” (Maganda, 2002: 159); this is seen in Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, and 12:24. Thus, Jesus is presented in the New Testament as “the mediator of the New Covenant, the arrangement by which God and man are one at last. He is the only way through which man can reach God and have fellowship with him” (Maganda, 2002: 160). The reason that He is the only way is because he was never alienated, because he never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), and because he is God in human form (Macleod, 1998: 152).

An evaluative comparison of the biblical and African understanding of a mediator.

From the above it should be clear that upon inspection the superficial similarities, between the biblical and African understanding of a mediator, turn out to be the tip of an iceberg of profound difference. Ancestral mediation does not have an end goal of producing peace between two parties (Maganda, 2002: 160). In fact, it is possible, in African conception, for the mediator to be one of the parties who needs to be appeased. Yet, frequently, the mediation has more to do with the enforcement of rule in the community, as well as the transfer and use of power, than it has to do with reconciliation of the Supreme Being and Africans. These aspects, due to their incompatibility, need to be rejected or modified to align with the biblical understanding of a mediator.

Furthermore, note that within the African understanding Jesus need not be deity. In fact, within that understanding, it would be inconceivable for the mediator to be the Supreme Being. Therefore, we need to exercise caution at this point. Maganda (2002: 162) rightly encourages us to assert that while Jesus is like the ancestors, in that He is fully man (Romans 1:3), he is also different to them, in that He is fully God (Colossians 1:15; 2:9; 2 Corinthians 4:4). Thus Jesus is more than just superior to the African ancestors at this point, He is of an entirely different class of being.

In light of the above, although it seems possible to present Jesus as mediator, and therefore proto-ancestor, the direction in which this thinking takes us, as well as the qualifications and modifications which are required for it to be legitimate, makes it seem unhelpful. The problem is that one is either left with a syncretistic understanding of Jesus’ mediation, or the concept is altered to such a point that it is emptied of its original meaning. In light of this, it may be helpful to engage in a linguistic consideration: can this metaphor be sustained when applied to Jesus?

Linguistic consideration of the ancestral metaphor.

Throughout the New Testament there are many metaphors which are applied to Jesus. Yet, in each instance He is analogised to legitimate metaphorical ideas: Jesus was a good son, a good king, a good teacher and a good saviour. We can subscribe to the metaphor of kingship, along with the others listed above, because kingship exists and is not opposed by God in a fundamental way.

We should not, however, be quick to suggest that the African institution of ancestors exists and is supported by God. While one should not for one moment doubt the experience of Africans, we must hold above that the truth of Scripture. When considering this topic, Scripture says “[The] dead… no longer have a part in anything that happens on earth” (Ecc. 9:5-6, NET). Due to this fact, God not only denies their activity in the world, He also asserts that He is opposed to anyone attempting to relate to the dead (Deut. 18:12). Therefore, in the very least, we should hesitate to apply this metaphor to Jesus.

The problem is not so much that the term itself forces a wrong understanding of Jesus, for words can be redefined. It is more that it creates an unhelpful relationship between Jesus and the ancestors. When Jesus is referred to as the proto-ancestor, just as when he is referred to as the King, he is bound to that metaphor. Thus, the way people perceive Jesus will be bound up with their understanding of the ancestors. This will mean that any difference we argue for between Jesus and the ancestors will be one of degree and not of kind, and so we would have implicitly affirmed the ancestral system. To avoid this, one would have to say that the ancestral system, which was false, was looking for something which was real, and that real thing is Jesus. In this case, however, surely it is more helpful to separate the reality from the falsehood than to closely associate them?

Conclusion.

In our considerations it has become clear that it is not impossible to present Jesus as the proto-ancestor. Yet, it will not be helpful to present Jesus in this way to Africans who want to understand Christ as the biblical Saviour who meets their real spiritual needs. Rather, a more helpful Christological metaphor must be sought which would help Africans authentically identify with Jesus in their context.

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[1] I rely heavily at this point upon Maganda (2002), who has undertaken such a study.

BIBLIOGRAPHY :

  • BEDIAKO, K. 1995. Christianity in Africa: the renewal of a non-Western religion. Edinburgh, U.K. : University Press.
  • BEDIAKO, K. 1999. Theology and identity: the impact of culture upon Christian thought in the second century and in modern Africa. Carlisle, U.K. : Regnum Books.
  • BEYERS, J. & MPHAHLELE, D.N. 2009. Jesus Christ as ancestor: an African Christian understanding. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 65(1): 38-42.
  • BOWERS, P. 2002. African theology: its history, dynamics, scope and future. African Journal of Evangelical Theology, 21(2): 109-125.
  • BOWERS, P. 2005. 12 notable books for Christian reflection in Africa: a review article. African Journal of Evangelical Theology, 24(2): 139-152.
  • KABASÉLÉ, F. 1991. Christ as ancestor and elder brother. (in SCHREITER, R.J. Faces of Jesus in Africa. New York: Orbis Books).
  • KAPOLYO, J.M. 2007. The human condition through African eyes: traditional African perceptions. African Journal of Evangelical Theology, 26(1): 17-38.
  • KATO, B.H. 1975. Theological pitfalls in Africa. Kisumi, Kenya: Evangel Publishing House.
  • KROHN, J.B. 2007. Verbal communication with the author. Kwa-Zulu Natal.
  • MACLEOD, D. 1998. The person of Christ. Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity Press. (Contours of Christian Theology).
  • MAGANDA, F. 2002. Contextualizing Jesus: “the only mediator” for the Sukuma. African Journal of Evangelical Theology, 21(2): 147-164.
  • MBITI, J. 1980. The encounter of Christian faith and African religion. [web:] http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1746. Date of access: 17 March 2010.
  • NBD (The New Bible Dictionary). 1996. Leicester, England : Inter-Varsity Press.