Volume 1.2 / The Priority of Scripture in the Pursuit of Gospel Relevance for the African Traditional Religious Context


The Priority of Scripture in the Pursuit of Gospel Relevance for the African Traditional Religious Context

Philemon Yong

Over the past 60 years African theologians have questioned the impact of the gospel within the African Traditional Religious (ATR here after) context. In their pursuit of gospel relevance within ATR context, most African theologians give priority to ATR belief system over Scripture. My goal here is to briefly describe some of their approaches to the question of gospel applicability in the ATR context and then make an alternative proposal for the way forward.

At the heart of African theology is the belief that “in order for the gospel to have real encounter with the African man, [we must] translate Christianity into genuine African categories. For without [these cultural categories], Christianity will never really be integrated into African society.”[1] It is therefore “The concern of African theology . . . to attempt to use African concepts and African ethos as vehicles for the communication of the gospel in an African context.”[2] Behind this emphasis of authentic African Christianity is the desire to maintain African culture because,

Culture as a way of life must be maintained. It is God’s will that Africans, on accepting Christ as their Savior, become Christian Africans. Africans who become Christians should therefore remain Africans wherever their culture does not conflict with the Bible.[3]

Even as western scholars claim that Africa will soon be the center of Christianity and that Africa will become the next “representative of Christianity for the twenty-first century” and the western church will do well to learn from their African brothers and sisters,[4] African theologians continue to herald the need for authentic African Christianity, one in which the gospel is relevant in the ATR context. In other words, African theologians are more concerned with the relevance of the African church in its indigenous context than establishing a conversation about contextualization with the West.

There are two common trends that give rise to the call for gospel impact among African theo- logians: the foreign nature of Christianity for Africans, and their emphasis on the ATR context in which the gospel must make sense.

My goal here is to highlight the call of our African brothers for gospel relevance; but also, to point out the challenges this call creates for the church. These theologians are in agreement in their pursuit of relevance but they are divided regarding the contextual expression of this African relevance. I believe that we must engage this topic with great caution otherwise the African church may experience more harm than good in its pursuit of gospel effectiveness.

1. The Foreign Nature of Christianity

In one-way or another, African theologians contend Christianity is a western or “white man’s” religion, and they believe that the history of missions in Africa was anything but effective due to the foreign nature of the gospel to the people of Africa. This claim flows from the fact that early missionaries contributed to the destruction of the African traditional religious way of life by re- quiring that Africans abandon their traditions before becoming Christians. Furthermore for some, Christianity reached Africa via Europe and came with a “European stamp” on it. Therefore, they believe if the gospel is to be relevant in the African context, the “African stamp” must replace the “European stamp.” [5]

2. Emphasis on the African Traditional Religion Context

Among African theologians, there are two key things to note about ATR: it is a way of life for those practicing it and they believe it prepared the way for Christianity. First, the problem African theologians find with the church is that the European gospel emphasized the salvation of the soul and promised eternal life after death, but excluded other aspects of their religious practice. For example, the church avoids the question of ancestors in relation to Christ and

As a result, many people are uncertain about how the Jesus of the Church’s preaching saves them from the terrors and fears that they experience in their traditional world-view. This shows how important it is to relate Christian understanding and experience to the realm of the ancestors. [6]

In their desire to make the gospel relevant to the African person in all aspects of life, African theologians have devised “Ancestor Christology.” African Christology is concerned with the question,“If Christ were to appear as the answer to the questions that Africans are asking, what would he look like?[7] Ancestor Christology, it is claimed, makes Christ meaningful to the African person. [8] Connecting Christ to the ancestors keeps African men and women from living at two levels (half African and half European) since the non-African Christology of the missionaries is eliminated. [9] The challenge then is to preach Christ in a way that makes sense not to westerners but to Africans.

Second, some African theologians believe that ATR was preparatory for the arrival of Christi- anity and so contributed to the rapid spread of Christianity because it already contained beliefs about God, man, and the world. [10] As such, some do not see much difference between the god of ATR and the God of Jesus Christ. [11] In other words, these theologians want to return to the African religious context to find ways in which to communicate the gospel to the African people within their religious context. One senses here a priority of religious tradition over Scripture in pursuing gospel relevance in ATR context.

Therefore, African theologians conclude the gospel must be proclaimed in a new way if it is to truly impact the religious context of Africa and produce an authentically African Christianity.

3. How should We Respond to the Approach of African Theologians?:

The desire for a relevant gospel in the African context is welcomed. Should the church pursue gos- pel relevance within her context of ministry? Absolutely! Unfortunately, the marked disagreement among ATR theologians has produced nothing but conflicting paradigms of African Christianity modeled after his or her own image in the name of cultural relevance.

It is my concern that the African call for gospel relevance and subsequent response by the West- ern Church will cause more harm than good if they overlook four important issues.

3.1. African Theological Methodologies

Other than Pobee, who offers helpful guidelines for doing African theology,[12] it is unclear what methods African theologians propose for relating the gospel to ATR contexts. It is difficult to eval- uate their theological conclusions because they do not have a defined methodology. In fact, many seem to draw theological conclusions based on their experience of traditional religious practices and many ATR theologians place their previous religious experiences over Scripture. As we listen to African theologians, we must analyze their theological conclusions and determine if they are the result of careful Biblical exegesis or their traditional belief system.

3.2. Who is the Voice of African Theology?

Africa is filled with diverse theologians who promote diverse theological views all based on ATR. Kato rightly points out that many of the theological tensions that exist on the continent result form the fact that over the years Africans have been sent abroad to both liberal and evangelical schools.[13] The call to learn from African theologians should be heeded with caution since no one theologian speaks for the whole of Africa and no two African theology books are consistent in their conclusions. Additionally, African theologians are not necessarily representatives of the overall theological views of the people. If we want to hear the theology of the common person in the village, we listen to their songs and stories. Only then will we know who Jesus is to them. Could it be that African theologians and African theology do not represent the views of African Christians?

3.3. Influence on Western Scholars

Many westerners affirm the claims of African theologians that Christianity is a foreign religion. For example, Tennent asserts that in past years, African Christians/theologians were not encouraged to reflect on their own theological questions. They were rather “taught to mimic what they had been taught” concerning any given theological topic. Therefore, their answers to theological questions were whatever the missionaries taught them. For example, on the doctrine of Christ, the Africans mimicked their teachers (missionaries) and they faithfully repeated whatever they had been taught about Christ.[14]

While these statements are passed on as fact, it is unclear how exactly this happened. African theologians writing about these events were not the first recipients of the gospel when it came to Africa. Furthermore, it also assumes that Africans are in some way incapable of grasping the truth of the gospel as preached from Scripture unless it is translated into traditional concepts. It was not true then and it is not true now.

3.4. The Role of Scripture in Theological Reflection

In their task to defend African Traditional Religion, some theologians end up defending practices that are incompatible with the Bible. As Kato notes, “Their burning desire to defend African person- ality is given precedence over scriptural injunctions.”[15] Unfortunately, the absolute authority and sufficiency of Scripture is not a recurring theme among many African theologians. This is reason enough to give us pause.

4. A Proposed Alternative to African Theology Approach

African theologians raise an important issue concerning gospel relevance in ATR context. Whether one agrees with them or not, the need for gospel relevance in the African religious context (and others like it) is undeniable. The gospel we preach must make sense in our ministry context before it can transform lives and culture.

But, is a local theology such as African theology, the answer to the question of relevance? One alternative is that rather than pursuing an African theology informed by ATR religious past, the

African church should systematically explore what the whole Bible teaches on any given topic. Afri- cans can then apply their Christian theology to the daily needs of their every day lives. Kato writes,

The term ‘African theology’ has come to mean different things to different people. Furthermore, it has the inherent danger of syncretism. The term therefore is viewed with suspicion. It is more appropriate to talk of Christian theology and then to define whatever context it is related to, e.g., reflections from Africa; the context of marriage in Africa; and the spirit world in Africa. But a continuing effort should be made to relate Christian theology to the changing situations in Africa. Only as the Bible is taken as the absolute Word of God can it have an authoritative and relevant message for Africa.[16]

African theology creates a problem for the church in relating the gospel to culture. It seeks to devel- op a theological system based on traditional religion rather than Scripture. A Christian theology approach to the question of gospel relevance in ATR context gives priority to the sufficiency and authority of Scripture, is universal, can be evaluated against the content of Scripture, and can be applied in any context.

I believe God’s Word (OT and NT) is the singular governing authority over every theological discussion and that any attempt at gospel relevance is bound by its instructions. This means that specific questions raised by African theologians ought to be addressed when pastors, teachers, and missionaries transition from gospel and theological foundations (rooted in thorough Biblical exe- gesis) to practical application in their specific ATR context. 

1  John S. Pobee, Toward an African Theology (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1979), 17-18.

2  Pobee, 18, 39. For a description of the task of African Christian theology by various authors, see Issues in African Christian Theology, editors, Samuel Ngewa, Mark Shaw, and Tite Tienou (Nairobi, Kenya: East African Educational Publishers, 1998), 3-72

3  Byang H. Kato, “Theological Issues in Africa,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 133 (April, 1976):146.

4  See Andrew Walls, Africa in Christian History: Restrospect and Prospect,” Journal of African Christian Thought, no 1 (June 1998): 2; Timothy Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zonder- van2007), 105; Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Chirstianity (London: Oxford University Press, 2002), 4.

5  See Pobee, 17.

6  Kwame Bediako, Jesus and the Gospel in African: History and Experience (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 23.

7  Ibid., xi.

8  Within Ancestor Christology view, Christ fulfills the role of he ancestors for the people. For a detailed description of Ancestor Christology, see Diane B. Stinton, Jesus of Africa, Voices of Contemporary African Christology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 112-35; Benezet Bujo, Africa Theology in Its Social Context, trans. John O’Donohue (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 75-91; Pobee, 81-98; Tennent, 122-32.

9  Bediako, 23.

10 Bediako, 21. See also John S. Mbit, Introduction to African Religion, 2nd edition (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann,1991), 21.

11 Bujo equates the god of ATR ancestors with the God of Jesus Christ as identical when he says, “It is not a question of replacing the God of the Africans but rather of enthroning the God of Jesus Christ, not as the rival of the God of the ancestors, but as identical with God.” See Bujo, 16.

12  Pobee, 20-23.

13  Kato, 144.

14  Tennent, 109.

15  Kato, 146-47

16  Kato, 148.

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