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Byang Kato Typescript Introduction The full subject of our discussion is stated as "Written Theology: to what extent has there developed an African Theology; a comparison of its principal spokesmen and themes; evolution of syllabi in theological training; the approach in writings to African traditional religions." I very much appreciate the privilege of speaking on this subject. If there is any need in the Church of Christ in Africa today, it is the need for theology expressed in the context of Africa by Africans and for Africans. Professor John S. Mbiti has rightly observed, "Mission Christianity was not from the start prepared to face a serious encounter with either traditional religions and philosophy or the modern changes taking place in Africa. THE CHURCH HERE NOW FINDS ITSELF IN THE SITUATION OF TRYING TO EXIST WITHOUT A THEOLOGY."1 Mbiti might have overstated his case in order to put across a point. A church cannot exist without theology of some sort. But it is fact that the teaching of theology in the churches leaves much to be desired. It is absolutely essential that church leadership in Africa delve into the discipline of theology before the queen of sciences is relegated to the second rate status and the Christians left undernourished and confused. We shall now look into the concept of proposed "African Theology," its proponents and the general approach towards African traditional Religions. The Proposed "African Theology" Theology may be simply defined as the science of God and His creation. In loose general terms, we can speak of Islamic Theology, Buddhist Theology, etc. By these general terms it is meant what the written and oral records of these religions say about the object of their worship and the worshipers. The discussion on these religions is limited to what their respective scriptures say. To drag the Christian Holy Bible into the discussion can be done only by analogy, or if the Koran or Sharmapada (the sayings of Buddha on Ultimate Reality) quote from the Bible. When it comes to the question of Christian understanding of theology, there is only one theology. Theology may be discussed under various departments such as Old Testament Theology, Pastoral Theology, etc. But they are all derived from the same source which is the Bible. All true theology must therefore, be Biblical Theology if it is to be anything Christian. It is accurate to speak of liberal or conservative evangelical theology. The yardstick for determining which is which of course, is the Bible. The liberal views the Bible as a changing book according to man's circumstances. He accepts certain parts and rejects others. The evangelical accepts all the 66 canonical books of the Bible as God-breathed, without error in the
original manuscripts, faithfully transmitted and is absolutely trustworthy. When it comes to the case of localizing theology, the immediate question that can be legitimately raised is what is the basis of such a theology? Will the Bible still be the source of such a theology? If the answer is affirmative, then is the Bible divided? The obvious answer is that the same Bible speaks to the American, the Asian and the African. If that is the case, then theology is one. There cannot be American theology or African theology. It is true that the term is used sometimes to describe the area where a view is prevalent. But it is a misnomer. In rejecting the term African Theology, we are not denying the fact that there is a need for expression of theology in the context of Africa. African theologians need to and can contribute to the further understanding of Biblical theology for the benefit of the universal body of Christ. There are certain issues peculiar to Africa where only African theologians may be able to speak effectively. Such issues include polygamy, family systems, courtship and marriage, liturgy, the spirit world and cultural revolution. In dealing with these issues, the ever-abiding Word of God remains the authoritative source. To sum up, all Christian theology must be biblical theology. But this biblical theology should be expressed in terms that are meaningful to every people in their own situation to meet their peculiar needs. We, therefore, approve of the idea of expressing theology in the context of Africa but not the title African Theology, especially as it has come to be understood in many circles today. Development of African Theology: Dr. E. Bolaji Idowu gives what may be a nucleus of what has developed to be a theological system. He writes, "A new interest, has of course, been born with regard to everything African in consequence of nationalism, the independence of African nations, and the general search for identity throughout the continent."2 That search for identity of the black man seems to characterize the search for African Theology. This is evident almost invariably in the works of exponents of this concept. Although Idowu is one of those opposed to the idea of localizing theology, in almost all his works, he sets western scholars against African theologians. Thus he is unconsciously localizing theology. It is Professor John S. Mbiti who, to our knowledge, first suggested the title "African Theology." He writes: African Theology, as it now begins to be called, is increasingly being discussed and one might be allowed to make a few observations here, though obviously this is a topic which deserves a separate, fuller and more detailed treatment. It is all too easy to use the phrase “African Theology”, but to state what that means, or even to show its real nature, is an entirely different issue.3 Instead of quibbling over names, Mbiti delves into the study to bring out what he feels should be the pattern for African Theology. In his book “Concepts of God in Africa," Mbiti systematizes the thinking of 270 ethnic groups in Africa, presenting the names and attributes of God by these different peoples. Mbiti's work looks like a volume of Systematic Theology by Berkhof; Shedd, Thiessen or Chafer. In chapter one he deals with the Omniscience,
Omnipresence, Omnipotence, Transcendence and Immanence of God. As to how Mbiti arrived at the conclusion that these pregnant words mean the same in languages he did not know is hard to understand. Some of the expressions could simply mean one with greater knowledge than all people, but this would remain relative and not necessarily absolute as is meant in Christian Theology. Mbiti's country man, Odhiambo Okite observes, "Dr. Mbiti's Concepts of God in Africa reads like a massive research project of St. Anselm's intended to prove that even for Africa, God is that which nothing greater can be conceived." Okite further adds, "In Concepts of God, he succeeds magnificently in translating a mass of anthropological information on 300 African tribes into theological terms."4 The advocates of “African Theology” have not only found themselves interpreting anthropological material as theological. The tendency to glorify African traditional religions, or drag in elements from it into Christianity is already evident. Dr. J. K. Agbeti of Ghana has distinguished African Theology from Christian Theology, and yet that is what African Christians are invited to hold. Agbeti writes: Thus it is my intention, in this article, to show that “African Theology” is distinct from Christian Theology as it may be expressed by African theologians using African thought forms . . . . Thus we may think of different kinds of theologies, e.g. Christian Theology, Islamic Theology. . . . Consequently when we talk about African Theology we should mean the interpretation of the pre-Christian and PreMoslem African people's experience of God.5 To show that the sources of “African Theology” are not the Bible, Agbeti specifies: Materials about African religion are being collected and collated regionally. From these regional sources, could grow later a religion which could be truly called African Religion. It will be from this source that an “African Theology” may be developed, a theology which will critically systematize the traditional African experience of God.6 The call for a development of “African Theology” is evidently a call to develop a syncretistic form of Christianity or an “Advanced” systematic form African Traditional religions. Philip Turner has an accurate assessment of the new “theological” or better still, racial venture. He evaluates, “It does not seem to help much to speak of African theology. The term is viewed with suspicion because the interest in traditional religion associated with it calls up in the minds of many a return to paganism.” He goes on, “The phrase 'an African Theology' has about it, therefore, the quality of a slogan of vindication. It refers first to the attempt to find points of similarity between Christian nations and those drawn from the traditional religions of Africa. Second it refers to the hope that a systematic theology dressed in the language and concepts of traditional religion and culture, may one day be written . . . .The phrase implies in its popular usage an attempt to amalgamate elements of Christian and elements of traditional belief.”7 Syncretism has been defined as “any form of religion in which elements from more than one original religious tradition are combined."8 The so-called “African Theology” as discussed above fits the description of syncretism.
The outcome of such a concept is Christo-paganism. Evangelical Christianity cannot, therefore compromise its position by adopting “African Theology” philosophy. We favour the expression of Biblical Theology in the context of Africa, but the ever-abiding, inerrant Word of God remains the source of theology. PROPONENTS AND THEMES To name particular spokesman in Africa is not an easy task because many prominent names are bound to be left out. But since the paper suggests that this be done, we now embark upon the risky exercise. Scholars are best known by the works they have put forth. So we now deal with those who have done much writing. Professor John S. Mbiti, who was recently appointed the head of Ecumenical Institute, Bossey, Switzerland, is well known for his three major works: The Concepts of God in Africa; African Religions and Philosophy; and The New Testament Eschatology in An African Background. The heart of Mbiti's theology appears to be the concept of time in Africa. According to him, Africans have no linear concept of time. Mbiti writes: The most significant factor is that Time is considered as a two-dimensional phenomenon; with a long past; and a dynamic present. The ‘future' as we know it in the linear conception of Time is virtually non-existent in Akamba thinking. My findings from other African peoples have not yielded a radical difference.9 According to Mbiti, Africans cannot think of the future. The corollary of his thinking comes out in his view of eschatology. He asserts, “The New Testament is explicit that Jesus never promised us a heavenly utopia, but only His own self and His own companionship both in space and beyond.”10 He holds that both heaven and hell are here and now. To be a Christian is to be in heaven, and to be a non-Christian is what Jesus meant by being in hell. Mbiti further asserts that in the final analysis all men will be saved regardless cf what they believe and practice. He affirms, “There is not a single soul, however debased or even unrepentant, which can successfully 'flee' from the Spirit of God. . . . The harmony of the heavenly worship would be impaired if, out of the one hundred in the sheep-fold, there is one soul which continues to languish in Sheol or “the lake of fire.”11 Mbiti's claims of the concept of circular rather than linear time is not altogether African. A western theologian, R.B.Y. Scott had advocated the concept of presence in the western world. Scott wrote, “Time contains the total experience. Past and future are extensions of the present, and (so to speak) are present in the present.”12 Mbiti's exposition of what amounts to universalism is not new. He is only reviving what Origen down to Bishop Pike and even Mbiti's professor Mcule have held. There is nothing African in denying the reality of heaven and hell. A born-again African Christian would take the Bible on its face value. Moving to the west coast of Africa we find another leading African theologian who has done reasonably well in writing theology. Professor E. Bolaji Idowu’s epoch-making volume, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, has been followed by another sizable volume, African Traditional Religion: A Definition.
The depth of Idowu’s scholarship must be appreciated. His theology may be summed up in terms of “Implicit Monotheism.” Idowu repudiates the position of his senior colleague Geoffrey Parrinder, who holds that West African traditional religious worshipers are polytheists. According to Idowu, the Yoruba people know clearly and worship only 'Olodumare' as the Supreme Being. He also rejects any view that conceives of “pagan” gods as idols. They are not idols but subordinate gods ordained by Olodumare himself as a ladder leading to Olodumare. Idowu warns, “To call African Traditional Religion idolatry is to be grossly unfair to it and to do violence to its essence.”13 Idowu further holds that African gods are derivatives but not created. Thus one can speak of them as being co-eternal with God. Apparently Idowu in his earlier works had given the impression that Olodumare was a creator of the lesser gods. Dr. Osadolor Imasogie uses this point to support his “Bureaucratic Monotheism.” He writes discrediting the view of polytheism. “When we come to examine the African traditional religion there is no myth or tradition to suggest that the Supreme God is just one of the gods who happens to be elevated to the position of a chief god. Rather, he is regarded as the eternal creator of both divinities and men, including the universe. Other divinities were brought into being by the Supreme God so that they might be minsters in carrying out, each in his own office, the functions connected with the creation and theocratic government of the earth (Olodumare p. 21).14 Imasogie holds that African traditional religions are monotheistic because the subordinate gods are not created. Idowu claims monotheism because the subordinate gods are not created. Both theologians make these claims in reference to Yoruba religions. Now who is right? This is the problem when we try to systematize and tidy up idolatrous practices with the system of thought we bring from Christianity. We so refine the traditional religions that the “Babalawos” (priest) themselves no longer realize the folly of their way. Will this help Christianity in Africa? Almost all of my students from more than a dozen tribes in Nigeria have affirmed that when their people approach a god at a given time, that god is all they know. It is true that certain requests are taken to the higher supreme being on occasions. But even the commonly accepted concept of mediation has been tidied up by scholars of African religions. The argument has been drawn up a posteriori from either the Chieftaincy set up or the Christian background. We do not deny that Africans have a concept of the Supreme Being. But more often than not the Supreme Being is tucked away beyond the sky, only for occasional instinctive references, while a visible god is installed and worshiped. Other leading theologians who deserve a long treatment include Harry Swayerr, C.G. Baeta, J. 0. Lucas, Stephen Neil; Geoffrey Parrinder, J. K. Abgeti, and others. The lecture, however, is already long and we must rush to a close. An Approach to African Traditional Religions: It would be naive and a denial of the written Word of God to deny that Africans or any other
people for that matter have a concept of the Supreme Being. The Scriptures clearly indicate, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them" (Rom. 1:19 RSV). God has given man not idols, but His marvelous creation as a witness to men. The gods which are called vain things could not be the witnesses God has given. It is rather God’s indiscriminating benevolence that speaks of Him. (Acts 14:15-18). While it is true that God has revealed Himself to men everywhere, it is equally true that man has fallen, and so cannot read God's manifestation right. Thus man has turned to worship the creation rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:20-23). This is the plight of men everywhere. The struggles on religious worship at best locate only the craving for some kind of Reality. But paradoxically, in his religious endeavor, man is fleeing from God. So he needs to be told in clear terms, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12). CONCLUSION: The evangelical leadership from more than half the countries of Africa met in Kenya under the auspices of the Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar (A.E.A.M.) in February 1973. The leaders emphasized the need of updating theological syllabi in our theological schools. They called for making the teaching of theology as relevant to African situation as possible. As a result of this and other insights, the subjects of cultural anthropology, African traditional religions and pastoral theology and ethics with African background in mind are receiving more attention. Schools such as Theological College of Northern Nigeria, Bukuru, Igbaja Theological Seminary, Ogbomosho Theological Seminary and Scott Theological College in Kenya are seeking to indigenize their theological presentations. The two Graduate Schools of Theology A.E.A.M. are seeking to establish probably in Kenya and Central African Republic respectively will emphasize two things in order of significance: Biblical content, and cultural relevance. Departments of religious studies in the universities have admirably stressed indigenous theology. Admittedly, academic excellence has been their primary goal. Perhaps this accounts for the open-ended dialogue between various religions in Africa. The “Orita” apparently depicts the concept of peaceful co-existence between Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religions without any claim of superiority let alone the uniqueness of one religion. Dialogue has its value, but an open-ended dialogue is not the Bible way. Comparative religion without a definite goal of saying “This is the way, walk ye in it” is not edifying to the Christian. It may make all concerned feel good, but Christianity has more than that to offer. It offers life to all men. As the teaching of African traditional religions finds its place in secondary and even primary schools, one of two things is bound to happen. Christianity will likely be watered down into Christo-paganism. Syncretism will increasingly become fashionable. Alternatively, we hope, the fact of general revelation and idolatrous worship will underline the need of Christ. Alongside this will rise the need for dismantling non-Christian cultural hangups from the western world and making the African Christian truly feel at home in church worship. The prophetic proclamation of the name of unique Christ will then surge forth into the “darkest” part of Africa to bring the unchanging message to the changing continent.
FOOTNOTES 1. John S. Mbiti: African Religion and Philosophy, p. 232. 2. . E. Bolaji Idowu: African Traditional Religion: A Definition. S.C.M. 1973, p. 206 3. John S. Mbiti: New Testament Eschatology in an African Background, O.U.P. 1971, p.185. 4. Christianity Today, October 23, 1970, p. 18. 5. Presence, Afropress, Nairobi, 1972, v, 3. 6. Ibid. 7. Journal of Religion in Africa, 1971, IV, 55. 8. Mbiti, N. T. Eschatology, p. 24. Ibid. p. 89 9. Sharpe, Eric J., 50 Key Words Comparative Religion, Lutherworth Press, London, 1971, p. 70. 10. Ibid. 11. Ibid. p. 179. 12. John R. Wilch, Time and Event, E.J. Brill, 1969, p. 6. 13. Idowu, E.B., African Religion: A Definition p. 125. 14. Review and Expositor, A Baptist Theological Journal LXX, No35 Summer 1973, p. 287. SUGGESTED B I B L I 0 G R A H Y Baeta, C. G. Christianity in Tropical Africa: Oxford University Press (1968). Beetham, T.A. Christianity and The New Africa Frederick A Praeger Publisher. (1967). Dickson, Kwesi A. and Ellingworth Paul, Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs. Orbis Books, Maryknoll N.Y. (1969). Evans-Pritchard E.E. Nuer Religion Oxford Clarendon Press (1956). Idowu, Bolaji. African Religion: A Definition ___________. Towards An Indigenous Church Mbiti, John S. New Testament Eschatology in an African Background. Oxford University Press (1971). ___________. Concepts of God In Africa. ___________. African Religions and Philosophy. Neill, Stephen. Christian Faith and Other Faiths. Oxford University Press. (1970) Oosthuizen, G. C. Post-Christianity in Africa. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan. (1968). Parrinder, Geoffrey. Witch Craft. By Faber and Faber London. (1968). _______________. African Traditional Religion. Radin, Paul Primitive Religion. N.Y. Dover Publications Inc. (1957). Banger, T. 0. And Kimambo I. N. The Historical Study of African Religion. The Chaucer Press. (1972).
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