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Living on the Seam of History 3: African Christology

Categories Theology

Last week we briefly examined African theology, particularly relating to the Muslim culture that permeates the continent. We asked the question is God the same as Allah, and if so, is that an evangelistic in-road? With this post I hope to examine the basics of African Christology. Who is Christ in African eyes, and what can we learn from that perspective?

“No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” – John 1:18 (NIV)

“There are many in Africa who deny the message of this passage (John 1:1-18). They may call themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses or representatives of Christ, but unless their message proclaims that Jesus is God, the Creator of all things, and the only basis upon which any man or woman receives blessings from God, they are to be condemned for their blasphemy. They are to be prayed for, but are also to be shunned. False teaching finds ready soil in Africa due to the natural religiosity of African people. It is time, however, that we in Africa became a little more discerning, to distinguish truth from error. We must guard the truths taught in this passage with all our being if we are to be on the same side as God, whose word clearly tells us that Jesus is God.” (Ngewa, Africa Bible Commentary, p. 1254)

African Christology is a growing field. Dr. Timothy Tennent affirms in Theology in the Context of World Religions that in last 40 years African theological scholarship has made unprecedented leaps forward, and that among this new library of material there emerges four distinct characteristics of African Christology:

1) It is a “theology from below” meaning “African thinkers are not as focused on the ontology of Christ and the relationship of his deity and his humanity as Western theologians have been” and “its overall approach is more holistic and integrative in explaining how the person and work of Christ apply to the whole of African life.” (p.113)

2) It has “conscious awareness of traditional Christological formulations from the West.” Tennent goes on to say “the overall tenor of African Christology is marked by a profound respect for historic Christian confessions.” (p. 114)

Samuel Waje Kunhiyop acknowledges this conscious awareness in his study of African Christian Ethics: “African ethical thinking did not develop in isolation, but has been richly influenced by the forces of Westernization, Christianization, and Islamization. Western influences have been particularly strong in Sub-Saharan Africa...” (p. 5)

3) African Christology is concerned with “connecting Christ to Africa’s pre-Christian past.” (Tennent, p.115) This concern is nowhere more aptly demonstrated than by Samuel N. Ngewa commentary on Jesus statements in John 14, “I am the way the truth and the life.” From an African perspective this statement carries meaning that is lost in the Western church.

“Jesus’ words here make it very clear that all roads do not lead to Rome, no matter how often we are assured that this is the case. Not all roads lead to possession of eternal life. Jesus is the God-appointed way. This statement raises the question of the destiny of our African ancestors who died before Christ was presented to them. When pondering this question, we need to remember that there is room in God’s judgment plan for judging cases on the basis of People’s response to general revelation." (Rom 2:12-16) (Ngewa, Africa Bible Commentary, p. 1283)

Tennent agrees saying, “Christ was presented to Africa as a foreign stranger in complete discontinuity with its own past. For an African to become a Christian was to step into a world of spiritual amnesia whereby everything in the African past was to be jettisoned to make way for their newly found faith in Christ, which was firmly hinged to a European worldview.”(Tennent, p. 115)

4) There is “an emphasis on the power and victory of Christ. All of the major African Christological images, such as Christ as Liberator, Chief, Ancestor, Healer, Master of Initiation, and so on, tend to portray Christ in terms of Power as Christus Victor.” (p. 115).

The image of Christus Victor is prevalent throughout the Africa Bible Commentary. Commenting John 8:31-38 Ngewa says “Many countries in Africa celebrate the day when they ceased to be colonies and became free nations. But not everyone enjoys the fruit of freedom. Many in Africa are still in bondage, suffering evils such as nepotism, corruption, self-centeredness, murder and the like. The liberation spoken of in this passage is what makes it possible for each resident of a free nation to reap the benefits of political independence.” (Ngewa, p. 1270)

So what can be learned from this survey? What are four distinctive elements of Western Christology and are they different than that of African Christology? Is the vision of Christus Victor suffering in the Western Church because we live in wealthy, powerful countries?

Check back next Wednesday to discuss African pneumatology.

Our Curious Shortage of Saints
by Glen G. Scorgie
Our Curious Shortage of Saints
by Glen G. Scorgie
It was the first night of our seminary course in Christian social ethics, and the classroom was packed. At our seminary ...
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