African T heology: Origin, M ethodology and Content

K w esi D ickson The inception of the Church in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) contained the seeds of the questionings that have become associated with the term African theology. A study of documents relating to the work of the Methodist Church in the last century would seem to suggest that for many of the new converts to Christianity there was no clear undersanding of the true nature of the Church . Brodie Cruickshank, a British resident in the country in those days, expressed the opinion, based on his observations, that many people were attracted to the Church by the bait of employment; those who worked for the Church as preachers (known as Native Agents) were given the same level of remuneration as those who were in the employment of the merchants. In the circumstances, according to Cruickshank, “as many as could find employment in the Church by professing faith joined the Church”.1 There is some evidence that Cruickshank overstates the actual situation, but that there is some substance in this observation as admitted, albeit indirectly, by no less a person than Thomas Birch Freeman, a Methodist missionary of mixed blood, who, writing of Cape Coast (one of Ghana’s principal towns) in 1853, observed: “Our people here consist of a small band of sawyers and their families . . .” 2 Others had joined the Church because the lure of the European’s world was too strong,3 and indeed the missionaries did all they could to make the African converts fit into their European world; Freeman admitted as much when he wrote: “In the matter of the Introduction of European manners and customs we have gone too far.” 4 In the circumstances of those days, then, when conversion involved
1 Brodie Cruickshank Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa , Vol. II, 1853, p. 69. 2 Letter dated 15th December, 1855. 3 S.G. Williamson, A kan Religion and the Christian Faith , Ghana Universities Press, 1965, pp. 17 ff. 4 Report of 1847.


he cannot deny himself. the members of this breakaway ‘Society’ had not understood what being in the Church meant. as it turned out) with rigour. to the picture of the Church as it was presented to the people of that time. they wanted presumably to show their zeal for the Lord by enforcing these rules (and others which had no Christian foundation. the religious and social valuations of his people. “ T he Methodist Society’: A Sect”.5 Evidently. The Christian who has been instructed in the Church’s teaching before full membership is found to have entered the Church without leaving his traditional world view behind. to a great extent. or at least attempting to enter. or the society within which he has been nurtured. He carries within himself his traditional outlook and attitudes. the possibility that many members of the Church did not quite understand what the Church of Christ stood for must be admitted. There are certain aspects of this development to which attention has been drawn. 2. Since the last century the Church has become a very visible institution in Africa as a whole. in Ghana Bulletin of Theology. the cultural world of the missionary.A fr ic a n T h eolo g y 35 entering. and however sincere his attachment to the Church. No. However great the attraction. pp.1964. 1-7. He seeks to fit the Church’s demands and teaching 5 See Kwesi Dickson. . a picture whose colour scheme was at best patchy: the face of Christ could not be discerned with any clarity. there is the observable fact that Christians who profess this new faith often limit Christ to prescribed areas of their life. 6. they broke away because—as they themselves explained their action—they were convinced that the missionaries were not enforcing with due stringency the rules they had themselves promulgated regarding the sale and use of alcohol by members of tfhe Church. and this lack of understanding could be traced. overshadowing Christ. One student of the Church as found among the Akan of Ghana has observed: The convert enters the Church as a traditional Akan attracted to an institution whose demands and concepts are basically foreign to him. T h is was dramatically illustrated in the 1860’s when some of the members of the fledgling Methodist Church broke away to form what was referred to as the “Methodist Society”. When it comes to things that really matter to the African Christian. while Europeanism stood out in bold colours. many an African member of the Church would push Christ aside and resort to traditional practices. First. What he hears he interprets in terms of his own thoughts. and Church membership has increased so significantly that euphoric prognostications of future growth are being made. Vol.

. Williamson. Until very recently. was not found to fit into their scheme of things. secondly. In my work both as a minister in the Methodist Church and as a University Professor I have had occasion to talk to my colleagues in the ministry on various matters of interest to the Church in Africa. because of the picture given him of Christ. Then. the African prefers not to take Christ along with him in grave movements—of sickness and death. This could very well be so. arising as it did from the circumstances of the implantation of the Church by the early missionaries who tended to work on the assumption that all conceivable theological situations had already been anticipated and solved by their home Churches. and I have come to the conclusion that there are many full-time workers in the Church in Ghana and other African countries who are curiously incapable of applying the theology learnt in the seminary to the practicalities of their work among their members. and indeed they were usually trained by Western theologians who had themselves been taught in some of the best-known theological colleges in the West.6 And. This was recently illustrated when one Church refused to hold a funeral service in the Church for a deceased member on the grounds that he had been polygamous. If it is argued that the minister in question had no alternative in doing the latter since he had often visited the deceased when he was ill and had in 6 S. p. cit. In any case. It might be argued that Christians who acted in this way could not have become truly converted. 74.36 T h e Jo u r n a l of R elig io u s T h o ug ht into his own social and religious moulds. op. It is not therefore surprising that wherever one turns in the Church the religious and social valuations of the Akan people manifest themselves. as he had been presented to such people. to a certain extent our clergy have inherited a theological position which was often illconceived and indeed impossible. it would be truer to say that the Christ. of plague and suffering in general.G. Of course. here recourse must be had to traditional and well-tried methods of countering the effeots of evil and giving assurance in a world of uncertainty and danger. those trained for the ministry in Ghana and indeed in other countries in Africa were brought up on what was impeccably in line with the Western type of training. even though the possibility would exist that such a view would be an over-generalisation. . and yet at the graveside one of the senior ministers present read his life story to the gathering and thanked God for his life. the training of ministers in the Church in Africa does not seem to have been carefully conceived as to its aims.

has produced ministers whose theology is not al ways relevant to their circumstances. such as it was was unsuited to the circumstances of the people. despite its hospitals and clinics. but in practice this meant a ministry . had him in his congrega tion in the Church. London: Pall Mall Press. and who often seem unwilling. of recognising the irrelevance of the received theology The Christ preached by the missionaries was a particular Christ with whom many could not easily identify. but he was not aware that this policy entailed a distortion of what Christ stood for. 106-107.indeed incapable. missionary records relating to Ghana contain statements which suggest that there was the desire. . or .7 The senior minister in question was following Church policy. It is not without :justification that T. Beetham has observed The curriculum (of African theological colleges) is in most cases too much tied to a traditional Western pattern. then the impossible theological position in which he put himself by refusing to have the body of the deceased in the Church becomes even more apparent. there was the expressed intention to raise a local ministry. felt by some missionaries. 1967. Christ loved the sinner while hating sin.9 In the process a Christian faith was inculcated which separated the sacred from the secular. unpublished article. pp 8. To be sure. ‫ ל‬. when he was enjoying good health. to bring Christ closer to the people in and through their life and thought. and were not . to exercise a full ministry of healing or with the success of some Independent Churches in this respect.modelled strictly along the lines of the European pattern. 9See Kwesi Dickson. but such statements were the exception rather than the rule.A fr ic a n T heology 37 -earlier days.ith its account of the touch of Jesus -of Nazareth on different kinds of illness. and who did not speak in relevant enough terms to the many who had joined the Church.I must not be understood to be endorsing the view that polygamy is sin Christianity and the New Africa .in any case translated into action in the way they could have been. *The Methodist Minister—Then and Now ”.A. Hence the Church’s theology. He was understood in a particular way by the missionary.The conclusion is inevitable that the Western theological training -whether carried out by Western missionaries or by Africans trained in West -em theological colleges. and this understanding was thought .by him to apply universally. As an illustration. Students can still come away from their lecture-room after studying the first two chapters of Mark’s Gospel—w. including mental sick ness—without having come to grips either with the failure of their Church.8 .

Farmers are going to learn to depend more on modem agricultural know-how than on the goodwill of the goddess of the earth. one could not encounter Christ except as a member of the Western world. with the many developments in modem medicine and the springing up of medical schools there would eventually be no recourse to the belief in the havoc caused by inimical spiritual agencies. it is argued that more and more people would be inclined to seek scientific solutions.10 but not many would seriously champion such a view today. The question then arises: Can Christ be made more real in and through African life and thought. It is sometimes seriously suggested in these days of advancing technology and industrialisation that African culture will have to give up what is seen as an unequal struggle. to say the least. nevertheless. Christianity has been so presented as to suggest that it is necessary for the African to enter into the Western world to become Christian. to their problems . 30. to a people whose world was undifferentiated. Africans are coming to terms with the new technological and other developments without sacrificing their traditional only a matter of tíme. Many African Church leaders have in recent years stated in various ways the conviction which the study of the word of God forces upon the Christian that 10 Richard Niebuhr. New York: Harper Torchbooks. p. Christ and Culture. The early missionaries had hoped to bring an end to what they saw as a form of religious belief and practice which enslaved the people’s minds. the traditional religio-cultural world view persists. .38 T h e Jo u r n a l of R elig io u s T h o ug h t the natural from the supernatural. but as we have already observed. The view has often been expressed that the disappearance of African religion . The evidence available would seem to suggest that this view of the inevitable disappearance of African religion is a gross overstatement. 1951. Africans are using modem agricultural implements and avail themselves of the facilities offered by modem medicine. rather than religious ones. and Africans see the two approaches as complementing each other. many Afri‫״‬ can Christians still hold on to the traditional religio-cultural presuppositions. through the tradition of spirit-consciousness which pervades Africa? To those like Troeltsch. and hence there would no more be felt the need to seek spiritual remedies. though the idea remains often as a presupposition unconsciously held and unconsciously influencing some actions. simply because that and the scientific approach ask different questions and seek for different answers.

There is an inevitable universalism that issues out of the particularity of God’s choice of Israel. Despite the Church’s received theology. unconsciously and without executive fiat. It may very well be that the Church in Africa has to give serious 11 Kwesi Dickson and Paul Ellington. .A f r ic a n T h eology 39 God reveals himself to all men. are full of feeling and meaning. Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs. the Methodist Church for many decades has had an unofficial place in her worship for what are referred to as Lyrics: these are generally free-rhythm songs some of which are reputed to have been war songs in the past. These songs and prayers show a deep desire to have God involved closely with people’s lives and well-being. impromptu prayers made by worshippers in Church. 13 See S. the theological fraternity ‘electing’ every few years a leading star by whose decisions. XXVIII.12 For a long time the Church in Africa has been adjusting. African Christians have been doing theology of a different kind for some time. and are more wholeheartedly assented to by the worshippers. Also.s article. 1969. 126 ff. I have had occasion to listen to sermons given by lay preachers. There is also the matter of the Church’s preaching. In Ghana. Williamson’s article. Vol. 2. No. as against the often sterile prayers which the Church’s Orders of Service and prayer books feature. surprisingly. pp. in Africa. Vol. particularly during prayer meetings. sermons that did not strike me as useful in terms of what my seminary training had taught me to expect of preachers. ‘T he Lyric in the Fante Methodist Church”. V. all matters theological were considered to have been definitively decided. the worshippers I had talked to had expressed complete satisfaction with the message given them. in the Bangalore Theological Forum . April 1958. No.G. p. The world has become used to thinking of theology in terms of carefully reasoned and systematically set out statements. “Salvation. 12 See Lesslie Newbigin. particularly as done by those who had not been trained in the Church’s seminaries. often before the questions were asked. to the theological situation that has officially characterised the Church. the New Humanity and Cultural Communal Solidarity”. and perhaps also in the envisaged United Church. but Africans must approach God in Christ and not through Westernism. it is only in the last few years that attempts have been made to collect these and reduce them to writing with a view to making them even better known throughout the Methodist Church in Ghana.13 These are always sung with the greatest enthusiasm. London:: Lutterworth. for example.1 1 African theology which deserves to be so called is that which does full justice to the African’s humanity. 16. 2. July 1973. And yet.

Granted that African Christians have been doing theology in their singing. as often understood and implemented. It . to make priests wear kente stoles and to have traditional religio-cultural symbols displayed prominently in the Church. The one that comes immediately to mind is this: Is there a core of Christian truth that is free from cultural colouring? It is not enough to sing African because indigenisation. the latter must be either discarded or adapted to suit the African traditional cultural ethos. The concept of African theology is meant to express the need to do a more drastic re-th. Here is an important development. This term is held to involve making a separation between the central revelation of God in Christ. In our zeal to isolate the . January-June 1973 to ‘Indigenisation of Worship*.is unchanging and about which there can be no compromise. praying and preaching. This indigenisation concept has been found very useful and is not without merit. and there is promise of more significant developments in this area in the years ahead. will be found to pose some problems. 1. and the cultural incidentals of a Western nature which accompanied the Gospel to Africa. if viewed simply and solely in terms of the definition of it given above. it is not enougjh merely to drape the altar in a kente cloth. which revelation . No. V. we may end up having a Church the Lord of which still wears a distinctly Western aspect. There are many Churches in Africa which have learnt to enrich their worship through the singing of African songs and the use of indigenous percussion instruments. .inking of all that the Church is and stands for with a view to creating a more appropriate Christian instrument. one that would serve more directly and more effectively the spiritual aspirations of those in Africa 14See the Bangalore Theological Forum which devotes Vol. left much of the Church’s foreign character unchanged that the concept of African theology came to be advocated. though it must be added that some would use this latest expression and indigenisation interchangeably. how is this theologising to be sustained.40 T h e Jo u r n a l of R elig io u s T h o ug ht consideration to discovering what preaching the word of God to her peoples should consist in. The concept.incidentals from the core of the faith—the revelation of God in Christ—and adapt the incidentals to suit the indigenous cultural ethos. adjusted (if necessary) and organised? A term that has been used most frequently to characterise the task for the Church in Africa and elsewhere14 is indigenisation. however.

To this point of the oneness of the Church I shall return. Meanwhile. Vol. first and foremost. the bringing together of two people in marriage brings together two families. In connection with the last named. Three areas where . In my article “Christian and African Traditional Ceremonies” 15 I have illustrated the inappropriateness of the Methodist Church’s Orders of Service for Infant Baptism and the Solemnisation of Matrimony. The Methodist from England on visit to Ghana and other African countris where Wesleyan missionaries have worked. whether it be matrilineal or patrilineal. be brought about are clear: ■the Church’s Orders of Service. Now. but it is only now that the prerequisitjes for such a theology are in the process of being defined.important developments could.A fr ic a n T heolo g y 41 who call upon the name of Christ. No. and that any situation contrary to this destroys this oneness. that not all the Church’s Orders of Services axe meaningful from the point of view of the circumstances of the African. 64-71. 18. informs them that the purpose of marriage is principally the nurture of children. sing the same hymns. March-April 1971. and must. I shall merely state here the main points made in that article in relation to the latter Order of Service. The Solemnisation of Matrimony Order of Service contains ideas which simply run counter to African life and thought to such a degree that the Order of Service represents an unreal world as far as the African matrilineal situation is concerned. and not just the love and comfort the couple experience with each other. This explains why the Church seems 1¡Practical Anthropology. the study of The Bible. so that traditional marriage involves a union that transcends the joining of the hands of two individuals in marriage. in African society. pp. and the restatement of basic Christian doctrines. it is an observable fact. marriage in traditional African society is for the purpose of begetting. and demonstrable. It may be argued that such is the kind of situation that underlines the oneness of the Church of Christ. The term has been in use for about a decade. Furthermore. would find the forms of worship in the Methodist (British) Church familiar. . the question has been asked whether such restatement should necessarily be along the lines of the accepted theological categories. 2. I shall now look at the three areas seriatim. He would hear and repeat the same prayers. and asks that any one who knows any just cause why the two may not be married by the minister should declare it there and then. hear and see couples being married and infants being baptised by the use of familiar liturgical formulations. This Order of Service singles out two people. the couple coming to be married in the Church.

16 where there is little attempt made to relate the Bible to the students’ resorted to. Nigeria. having performed the customary rites in connection with marriage. which has been woefully neglected by the Church in Africa and which deserves urgent attention. . the many hermeneutical tools which scholars have defined over the years are indispensable. because they ‘ignore’ those gathered in worship. called for a Bible commentary that would. is the study of The Bible.. It is not surprising that ·the West African Association of Theological Institutions. initiation rites) from which much could be gained if one were to study them and use them to tell the story of Christ coming to man to make him fully human. because its original stand on the question of children in marriage is basically different.” which foreshadows the discussions going on today on Christianity in Africa. Our Orders of Service often fail to bring people to the heart of worship—communion with God. to invite someone or other to declare why the two may not lawfully be married by the minister is .42 T h e Jo u r n a l of R e lig io u s T h o ug ht to lack authority in a situation of childlessness. A thorough study of the Bible should involve finding the word of God for the inquirer in the context. particularly where the expedient of raising children outside the marriage . the couple would be considered already married by the contracting families. Earlier I referred to Beetham’s dissatisfaction with the study of the Bible done in the seminaries in Africa. taking little or no account of their being who they are. has yet to catch the eye of a commentator who would make the questionings of Acts 15 and the reasoning of Acts 17. The second area. Such a very ‘contemporary’ work as the “Acts of the Apostles. at its 1974 annual meeting at a sense to engage in a meaningless exercise since. of his own circumstances. Of course. 16 See note 8 above. and the thoughts of many other passages in that book. come home to Africans with immediacy. The quest for an African theology must involve a close study of the received Orders of Service in the light of cognate traditional liturgical situations with a view to arriving at formulations which will make Christ real to Africans in the particularity of their circumstances. while employing modern critical methods of study.g. There are many traditional ceremonies with such crucial significance (e. at the same time help Africans to hear God speaking to them direct. and in the departments of religious studies all over the continent care is taken to ensure that students are brought up to appreciate the modem critical methods of biblical study. Moreover.

A f r ic a n T heolo g y 43 While on the study of the Bible. In my own department such a traditional course as Christian ethics is made to take account of African moral ideas. a special word must be said about the Old Testament. “The Old Testament and African Theology”. and with greater clarity than the New Testament. indeed. but also. . 18 See Kwesi Dickson. if the constant contact with other peoples had not left its mark on Hebrew religion and literature. The Old Testament contains much that pre-dates the formation of the authentic Hebrew on the one hand freely appropriated some of the traditions of her neighbors (such as Egyptian wisdom). though such material is made to tell the story of God’s covenant relations with a people. I am convincd that the complex cross-currents of ideas in The Bible ought to be studied with all seriousness by Africans.18 and it is partly this which accounts for the popularity of the Old Testament in the African independent Churches. God must be heard to speak to Africans in clearer tones than the traditional theological studies have made it possible for them to hear. and hence given a new setting. the later ftmphasking the need for recognising a radical dialectic of continuity and discontinuity: the Old Testament prepares the way for the New. No. It must be admitted that the recognition of the continuity between the Old Testament and African life and thought should be balanced by the recognition of the discontinuity between them. Not only does the Old Testament enunciate more clearly the principle of the particularity of theologising. 4. The matter of the Old Testament relating religion to every sphere of man’s activity has long been recognized. 4. but in the light of the latter the Old is judged. It would be surprising. while on the other hand rejecting the context in which the things appropriated stood. It is in recognition of this that several university departments of religious studies in Africa are experimenting with a course on the Old Testament (or The Bible) and African life and thought. and the interaction that is likely to take place. it relates religion to every sphere of human activity. and also stands in a close relationship with the New Testament. 31-41. The pre-Hebrew magical use of the sin offering is solemnly recorded17 by the priestly writers in their compilation of ritual regulations and the role of sacrifice as a means of approaching God. It is a well-known fact that Israel reacted in two simultaneous ways to its milieu: . pp. or has already taken Leviticus 11-15. seeing that the Old Testament makes something new of the ideas and customs appropriated. June 1973. in the Ghana Bulletin of Theology. Vol.

a more fundamental question needs to be asked: should the rethinking of Christian beliefs assume the . the strengthening of the bonds binding Christians together. the Department of Religious Studies. thus renewing society’s vitality and strengthening the community bonds. among other things. traditional Christian theology has tended to see the death of Christ as a regrettable prelude to the resurrection. Leading Christian thinkers have at various times sought to fathom the meaning of Christ’s death. living experience of Western theologians. but not much more than lip service is paid to this because of the traditional Christian view that the death of Christ would have meant nothing without the the death per se of Christ than Christian teaching has recognised? In the African situation Christ’s death would mean. It is not surprising that since the patristic period the death of Christ has given rise to a diversity of theories of atonement. but the triumph is only temporary since the often elaborate and protracted customary rites in connection with the dead emphasise the temporariness of the interruption. Christian doctrines need to be re-examined for two reasons. The third area for careful consideration is Christian doctrines. There is a paradoxical attitude to death. Is there more meaning . has for many years run a course entitled ‘Interaction of Religions’ which seek to study some of the matters raised here with respect to the meeting of Christianity and African life and thought. The powers of ev. As against this. there is also drumming and dancing—these and other activities underline the belief that death is not an unmitigated disaster. it was a 1 triumph.44 T h e Jo u r n a l of R e lig io u s T h o ug ht place. Indeed. to be sure. Death is mourned and regretted. University of Ibadan. between the two. One may cite as an illustration the meaning of death as seen in relation to the meaning of Christ’s work. and this is an area where African theology can make a contribution to Christian thought. but the ceremonies aimed at stabilising the community which have suffered loss are very striking: the ancestors are called upon to re-inforce the community by giving the women more children. which interpretation may obscure some aspect of the faith or indeed omit reference to matters which are taken account of in the Scriptures but which are not part of the active. the Church allows. Nigeria. There was great gain in his death. They are often the result of biblical truth being interpreted in a Western way. and hence the uncharacteristic solemnity of Good Friday as celebrated in Christian Churches in Africa. In connection with matters of may have triumphed in bringing about death. In Africa death is seen as a force that revitalises society’s interrelationships.

when one writes about Africa one always runs the risk of oversimplifying the picture of a continent which has a great variety of peoples and traditions. Such a view confuses unity with uniformity. a brief word about the view sometimes expressed that the quest for an African theology is a quest for /the breaking up of die one Church of Christ. there can be no room for theologies characteristic of particular areas of Christendom. from the colonial to the post-colonial period. Given this nature of the continent. African theology. To proceed along these lines could be very useful in . but this one Church is made up of many peoples the swell of whose various and authentic praises cannot but enrich the one Church. In these days of labels. the rethinking would then be done in terms of areas of thought defined in the Western context. one must face the possibility that rforktian theology in Africa will be expressed in different ways to reflect the particularities of local circumstances.that it would mean relating fresh thinking to specific areas of thought. Christ is the one Lord of the Church. not only in recognition of the changed status of much of Africa. . . the basis of the oneness of the Church. might be considered as a theology of selfhood. while in others Africans are under oppressive black rule. economic and political some parts of the continent Africans live under oppressive white rule. thus enabling discussion to proceed within recognisable and manageable limits. Of course. This might very well stifle greater originality. and who promises salvation in the context of their circumstances. it could be a useful procedure to examine the Church’s theology by looking at its various parts as traditionally defined. for. the possibility that this procedure may become a limiting factor cannot be discounted. Much thought will have to be given to methodology to ensure that African theology develops as a real contribution to * ‫!־‬hrintian thought. Many feel that since the Church is one. but also as a symbol of the desire of the Church in Africa to be in a position to present Christ as one who knows and understands the hopes and fears of Africans. However. social. as it is developing. However. the focal point of African theology would remain the same: an expression of the Christian faith which does justice to the African’s humanity and God-given ways of life and thought. and result in confused thinking. Also.A f r ic a n T heolo g y 45 inviolability of the traditional categories of theological thought? On the one hand. an aspect of which has already come under consideration here when a look was taken at the meaning of Christ’s death. such as the doctrine of redemption. Finally. with its varied religious.

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