Category Archives: African Theology

Food for Thought from Ethiopia

You can find a recent article on fasting from an Ethiopian perspective at the Theopolis Institute website.

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Exorcising Feuerbach, Marx and Freud

Stefan Paas mentions a great example of how African Christians can have a very different perspective on reality compared to that of European Christians: “The German researcher Claudia Währisch-Oblau tells an interesting anecdote about a seminar with migrant pastors in Germany. They had asked for information about German culture, and especially what barriers there were to evangelism in that culture. Subsequently a professor was flown in, who with good German thoroughness taught the pastors for almost the whole day about the founders of modern European atheism: Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. The researcher was somewhat taken aback to see how the migrant pastors processed this teaching. That very evening they had a two hour long prayer meeting, in which they loudly and fervently exorcised the spirits of Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, in the name of Jesus. Währisch-Oblau closes her story with the comments of the professor who had prepared the seminar. While the researcher was still disconcerted by the communication short circuit, ‘[he] asked himself out loud if a driving out of the spirit of religious critique was perhaps exactly what Germany needed.'”[1]

[1] Stefan Paas, Vreemdelingen en priesters: christelijke missie in een postchristelijke omgeving (Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, 2015), 105.

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The Turner School of African Theology

Regarding the study of African theology, Walls points out that African experiences “have produced a greater degree of theological development than has often been recognized.”[1] In particular African theologians have explored the themes of conversion and Christian identity, developing their own creative methodological approaches for the African context. Two important examples include Cyril Okorocha’s The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa and Kwame Bediako’s Theology and Identity, both of which grew out of PhD dissertations under Andrew Walls at the University of Aberdeen. Studies like these are a valuable source for intercultural theology because they give African perspectives on the kind of methodological approaches that are most appropriate for the study of African theology and highlight important methodological considerations. Both theologians stress the need for an explicitly theological approach; Okorocha underlines the importance of empirical research while Bediako emphasizes the need for historical theological perspectives for studying African theology. Interestingly, both draw heavily on Harold Turner’s article, “The Way Forward in the Religious Study of African Primal Religions.”[2]

Harold Turner on Methodology

Turner’s phenomenological approach in this article raises a number of important points. The first is that “the nature of the field of study must provide the major control over the methods employed.”[3] Therefore the study of religion requires wide variety of methods, from the physiology of religion on the one hand to the theology of religion on the other. Second, Turner argues that the religious dimension or sphere requires distinctively religious disciplines in order to avoid reductionism.[4] Consequently he urges the use of phenomenology and the history of religions. Third, he suggests that “there is a dialectical interaction between the various methods as well as a hierarchical arrangement among them. Thus, physiology of religion might come towards the bottom of the hierarchy and the phenomenology and history of religions towards the top, with theology perhaps as the crowning study.”[5] His choice of metaphor, however, raises the question the question of whether theology is merely icing on a phenomenology cake. Turner is positive about the possibility for intercultural studies of religion. He argues that “There is nothing new in the endeavor to study a religious tradition set within a culture quite different from one’s own; it is going on all the time and all over the world” and states that “men resemble one another more than their cultures do.” Importantly, Turner defends the appropriateness of explicitly theological approaches to African reality, but calls for the use of “the specialist contributions of phenomenology and history of religions” in order to achieve “interpretive depth.”[6]

Okorocha’s Phenomenological Approach

Following Turner, Cyril Okorocha[7] argues that African scholars need to work on combining disciplines in the right hierarchical order in their study of African religious experiences. In particular he insists that “the religious is a sui generis sphere of the human life” and that “to fail to take seriously the religious itself is to fall into a dangerous reductionism.”[8] He agrees with Turner’s hierarchy of methods with theology as “the crowning study,” followed by phenomenology and the history of religions, and social anthropological approaches. In his work, Okorocha takes a phenomenological approach involving empirical research, aiming to describe African religious experiences of conversion as they are,[9] but insists that “the encounter between Igbo religion and Christianity in Igboland, and the attendant questions surrounding conversion and religious behaviour of Igbo converts centre around deep-seated theological issues, not merely socio-cultural ones.”[10] Furthermore, he writes that the results of his study not only call for African theological reflection, “which must at once be Christocentric, biblical, and contextual,” but also for intercultural theological dialogue, “drawing from the rich experience of the Church Universal and making its unique contribution to the ongoing life of the Church.”[11]

Bediako’s Historical-Theological Approach

Kwame Bediako also follows Turner’s methodological lead, though not without some criticism. He wonders whether Turner’s call for the use of phenomenology and history of religions “might not be seen as yet another instance of the use of structures of Western thought applied to African religion,”[12] but approvingly cites Turner’s defence of the appropriateness of an explicitly theological approach.[13] He ultimately argues that “the choice must lie with African Theology as to the descriptive categories and the criteria of judgment that it brings to bear upon African reality.”[14] In his own study, Bediako takes Turner’s claim that “the nature of the field of study must provide the major control over the methods employed” as his starting point.[15] Since African Christianity is part of a historical movement in which the gospel has been contextualized in different cultures, he argues that historical theology can help shed light on issues in contemporary African theology. In comparing historical and contemporary examples of contextualization it is possible to learn something about both Christian self-understanding as a whole and what is unique about African self-understandings in particular.[16] The central claim of his study is that “The phase of the Christian history which offers the most instructive parallels to the modern African context is the beginning of Hellenistic Christianity in the early Roman Empire.”[17] Bediako’s marriage of intercultural and historical theology is a bold move with important implications. If Tatian, Tertullian, Justin and Clement can shed light on African Christian identity, then perhaps Augustine can shed light on African understandings of sacrificial atonement metaphors. Issues that are important in Western theological debate surrounding the atonement, such as the notion of spiritualization, may not be so important to African theologians. Perhaps a typological understanding of sacrifice maps better with African discourse on Jesus’ sacrifice. Bediako thus emphasizes the need for a wide-angle theoretical lens when examining African theology.

[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 46.

[2] Harold W. Turner, “The Way Forward in the Religious Study of African Primal Religions,” Journal of Religion in Africa 12, no. 1 (1981): 1–15.

[3] Turner, “The Way Forward in the Religious Study of African Primal Religions,” 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Cyril Okorocha is Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Owerri, Nigeria.

[8] Cyril C. Okorọcha, The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa: The Case of the Igbo of Nigeria, Avebury Series in Philosophy (Aldershot: Avebury, 1987); Kwame Bediako, Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).

[9] Okorọcha, The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa, xi.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Ibid., xii.

[12] Bediako, Theology and Identity, 11n16.

[13] Ibid., 11n18.

[14] Ibid., 5.

[15] Ibid., 6.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 7.

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Harold Turner: The Kiwi Walls

Harold Turner has been described by Paul Windsor as the “Kiwi Newbigin,”[1] but he could also be described as the “Kiwi Walls.” He was born in New Zealand in 1911 and after completing his studies in 1939 he worked for 15 years as a Presbyterian minister there. He went on to work as a missionary scholar in Sierra Leone and Nigeria where he met and formed a close partnership with Andrew Walls that continued for the rest of his life. It was during his time in West Africa that wrote his PhD dissertation, History of an African Independent Church in 1967, which as Andrew Walls writes is “Still the fullest account we have of the history of any body of African Christians.”[2] He later moved to the U.K., where he developed a new department at the University of Leicester based on his phenomenological approach to studying religion and also founded the Centre for New Religious Movements in Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham. During his time there he met Lesslie Newbigin, who asked him to read and comment on a draft of his well-known work The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Towards the end of his life he moved back to New Zealand, where he formed the Gospel and Cultures Trust (later called DeepSight Trust) with similar goals to those of Newbigin’s Gospel and Our Culture Network. He passed away in 2002.[3]


[2] Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, 118.

[3] J. M. Hitchen, “Harold W. Turner Remembered,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 26 (2002): 112–17.

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The Sovereignty of God in Intercultural Perspective

In his excellent book, When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert relates the following story of how he came to a deeper and richer understand the sovereignty of God during a visit to a Kenyan slum. The story is a great illustration of the value of intercultural perspectives both for theology and Christians around the world as they seek to grow in their walk with God.

One Sunday I was walking with a staff member though one of Africa’s largest slums, the massive Kibera slum of Nairobi. The conditions were simply inhumane. People lived in shacks constructed out of cardboard boxes. Foul smells gushed out of open ditches carrying human and animal excrement. I had a hard time keeping my balance as I continually slipped on oozy brown substances that I hoped were mud but feared were something else. Children picked through garbage dumps looking for anything of value. As we walked deeper and deeper into the slum, my sense of despair increased. This place is completely God-forsaken, I thought to myself.

Then to my amazement, right there among the dung, I heard the sound of a familiar hymn. There must be Western missionaries conducting an open-air service in here, I thought to myself. As we turned the corner, my eyes landed on the shack from which the music bellowed. Every Sunday, thirty slum dwellers crammed into this ten-by-twenty foot “sanctuary” to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The church was made out of cardboard boxes that had been opened up and stapled to studs. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a church, a church made up of some of the poorest people on earth.

When we arrived at the church, I was immediately asked to preach the sermon. As a good Presbyterian, I quickly jotted down some notes about the sovereignty of God and was looking forward to teaching this congregation the historic doctrines of the Reformation. But before the sermon began, the service included a time of sharing and prayer. I listened as some of the poorest people on the planet cried out to God: “Jehovah Jireh, please heal my son, as he is going blind.” “Merciful Lord, please protect me when I go home today, for my husband always beats me.” “Sovereign King, please provide my children with enough food today, as they are hungry.”

As I listened to these people praying to be able to live another day, I thought about my ample salary, my life insurance policy, my health insurance policy, my two cars, my house, etc. I realized that I do not really trust in God’s sovereignty on a daily basis, as I have sufficient buffers in place to shield me from most economic shocks. I realized that when these folks pray the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer-Give us this day our daily bread-their minds do not wander as much as mine so often does. I realized that while I have sufficient education and training to deliver a sermon on God’s sovereignty with no forewarning, these slum dwellers were trusting in God’s sovereignty just to get them through the day. And I realized that these people had a far deeper intimacy with God than I probably ever will have in my entire life.[1]

[1] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor. . .and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009), 68-69.

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Christian, What Do You Believe? An African Creed

At the very end of Christianity Rediscovered, Vincent Donovan records the following creed, presumably an English translation: “We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on earth. We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

“We believe that God, made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

“We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen”[1]

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), 163.

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What Is True Faith? A Masai Answer

Ever wondered how a Masai might answer Q & A 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism? Here is the wonderful answer that Vincent Donovan was blessed to hear: “I was sitting talking with a Masai elder about the agony of belief and unbelief. He used two languages to respond to me – his own and Kiswahili. He pointed out that the word my Masai catechist, Paul, and I had used to convey faith was not a very satisfactory word in their language. It meant literally ‘to agree to.’ I, myself, knew the word had that shortcoming. He said ‘to believe’ like that was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word. He said for a man really to believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paws, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down, the lion envelops it in his arms (Africans refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms) pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is.

“I looked at the elder in silence and amazement. Faith understood like that would explain why, when my own was gone, I ached in every fiber of my being. But my wise old teacher was not finished yet.

“‘We did not search you out, Padri,’ he said to me. ‘We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.’”[1]

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), 51.

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Modern Christianity and Africa

Andrew Walls on the importance of understanding African theology: “Where Africa is the focus of study in the secular academy today, there is widespread acknowledgement that, if one wants to study modern Africa, it is necessary to know something about Christianity. In the theological academy, however, there appears much less recognition that if one wishes to study modern Christianity it is necessary to know something about Africa.”[1]

[1] Andrew F. Walls, “Globalization and the Study of Christian History,” in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, ed. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007), 78.

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