African Public Theology

The following review will be published in an upcoming issue of Exchange: Journal of Contemporary Christianities in Context ( and is posted here with permission.

Sunday B. Agang, Dion A. Forster and H. Jurgens Hendriks (eds), African Public Theology (Carlisle: HippoBooks, 2020) xxvi + 422 pp. ISBN 978-1-78368-766-4 (paperback). Price: £ 19,99.

African Public Theology is a landmark in African Christian Theology. Edited by Sunday Agang, Dion Forster and Jurgens Hendriks, the volume is the result of a collaborative project organised by the Network for African Congregational Theology and generously funded by the Tyndale House Foundation. The book provides an introduction to African Public Theology in three parts: theoretical foundations (pp. 1-64), key themes (pp. 65-364), and the role of the church (pp. 365-400). It brings together contributions by thirty scholars, including thirteen Nigerians and six South Africans, as well as representatives from a variety of other countries. Intended as a handbook for academics, clergy and everyday Christians, each chapter contains questions for personal reflection and suggestions for further reading. The volume concludes with a brief appendix on the African Union’s “Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want” and a twenty-page bibliography. The book is published in hardback, paperback and as an ebook at very affordable prices.

The first part lays the theoretical foundations for the rest of the book. Sunday Agang presents a compelling case for public theology, arguing that a broader understanding of theology is needed to work towards the Africa that God wants. “Theology is not only the study of God; it also involves the study of how God interacts with his creation” (pp. 7-8). Such an understanding means that “Christian theology…is concerned with how all aspects of human knowledge, understanding, and faith in God can translate into a deep moral commitment to building a better society, one which is strong in faith, love, justice and wisdom” (p. 8). Dion Forster takes up this vision in his thorough treatment of the nature of public theology. After outlining three senses in which all theology is public theology, he argues that public theology is different from other theological disciplines in that it draws on both theological and other academic disciplines to address aspects of public life. He also discusses six important characteristics of public theology. The three remaining essays, dealing with the Bible, the Trinity and identity, are well-written, although Hassan Musa’s answer to the question of how the Bible should be used in public theology is rather vague. All hermeneutical approaches seem to be acceptable as long as they are ‘responsible’. On a more general level, two topics that merit more attention in this section are the history of African theological engagement in public life and the relationship between public theology and other forms of political theology.

The second part presents essays on a wide range of key themes. Interestingly, “Issues relating to the state are left until late in the section to avoid giving the impression that public theology is equivalent to political theology” (p. 65), but no further explanation of this distinction is given. Some of the essays are outstanding. For example, Ernst Conradie provides a sophisticated treatment of the relation between theology and economics, discussing Africa’s economic challenges and opportunities, Christian criteria for economic life, and the church and economic issues. Other noteworthy contributions include ‘rural community development’, ‘the environment’, ‘migration and human trafficking’, ‘land issues’, ‘leadership’ and ‘intergenerational issues’. Most of the essays in this section are well-written, but the quality of the contributions varies. Treatments of more political themes such as ‘democracy, citizenship and civil society’, ‘human rights’ and ‘the state’ leave something to be desired. The discussion of democracy offers little critique of Western notions of liberal democracy, the contribution on human rights fails to distinguish adequately between the human dignity and human rights traditions, and the essay on the state seems to subsume other forms of political theology in the category of public theology.

The third part focuses on the role of the church. Matthew Michael is given the gigantic task of assessing the state of the church in Africa, which would be difficult to do in a book, let alone a chapter. Given the impossibility of the task it is understandable that he can only make a series of sweeping generalisations about African Christianity. While these statements are interesting, they remain assertions with little evidence provided to support them. Alfred Sebahene gives a clear and well-written presentation of the church’s role in working towards “Agenda 2063,” emphasising the need to embrace the African Union’s vision but also to go beyond it if the church is to be faithful to God’s calling. Jurgens Hendricks concludes the section with a passionate call to African academics, clergy and everyday Christians to work towards the Africa that God wants. He emphasises the need for “tenderness of conscience” (p. 392) and calls for a Spirit-led movement that passes the three tests described by Andrew Walls: the church test, the kingdom test and the gospel test. On a more general level, this section seems very brief and would benefit greatly from concrete examples of how African Christians and churches have successfully engaged in public life. As a whole, the volume provides a valuable introduction to the subject at hand. Whether African public theology lives up to Forster’s characteristic of being “competent to provide political direction” (p. 21), remains to be seen.