Kwame Bediako

Date Added to the Noyam Research Archive
Wednesday, 14th October 2020

Asempa Publishers Ghana


Christian Faith and African traditional Religion in Retrospect

ONE OF The most telling commentaries on the presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Africa is the following Statement:
Christ has been presented as the answer to questions a white man would ask, the solution to the needs that western man would feel, the Saviour of the world of the European world-view, the object of the adoration and prayer of historic Christendom. But if Christ were to appear as the answer to the questions that Africans are asking, what would he look like?[1]

It was made by one of the more perspective and sensitive missionaries to Africa of our time and describes neatly the general character of western missionary preaching and teaching in Africa since the arrival of missionaries on our continent during the 19th century. It also raises a question which must be faced by African churches and African Christians of today who are convinced that Jesus Christ is the Universal Saviour and thus the Saviour of the African world, and who feel that the teaching they have so far received is inadequate.

And yet the negative side of missionary history in Africa must no be exaggerated, for several reasons. Firstly, the vitality of our Christian communities bears witness to the fact that the Gospel really was communicated, however inadequate we may consider that communication to have been. There is always more to the “hearing” of the Word of God than can be contained in the actual preaching of it by the human agents;[2] the Holy Spirit is also present to interpret the Word of God directly to the hearers. Therefore we must allow the mercy and providence of God to override the shortcomings of human achievements.

Secondly, African theological thinkers now share in the inheritance of the Gospel as the Apostle Paul proclaimed it, the Gospel that set the early Gentile Christians free from Jewish Christian attempts to impose upon them the regulations of the Jewish Law. [3] Paul grasped firmly the universality of the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah, and by insisting that the Gospel includes all peoples without reserve, gave the Gentile Christians the essential tools for assessing their own cultural heritage, for making their own contribution to Christian life and thought and for testing the genuineness and Christian character of that contribution. For many years now African theologians have refused to accept the negative view of African religion held by western missionaries and have shown consistently the continuity of God from the pre-Christian African past into the Christian present.[4] They have therefore, like the Apostle Paul, handed to us the assurance that with our Christian conversion, we are not introduced to a new God unrelated to the traditions of our past, but to One who brings to fulfilment all the highest religious and cultural aspirations of our heritage. In this way the limitations in our missionary past need no longer hinder the growth of Christian understanding and confidence in our churches.

A further reason touched on the nature of African tradition religion itself, and its encounter with the Christian faith. The common western missionary view of Traditional Religion was that it formed “the religious beliefs of more or less backward and degraded peoples all over the world”, [5] and that it held no “preparation for Christianity”. Yet in more cent years, it has been shown that Christianity has spread most rapidly in “societies with primal religious systems,”[6] that is, religious systems akin to African Traditional Religion. These societies are the Mediterranean world of the early Christian centuries, the ancient peoples of northern Europe and modern “primalists” of Black Africa, Asia, South America and Oceania. This fact of history has led to the question whether there might be “affinities between the Christian and primal traditions?” It shows clearly that the form of religion once held to be the furthest removed from the Christian faith has had a closer relationship with it than any other.[7] Indeed, since primal religions have been “the most fertile soil of the Gospel”, it has been argued that they “underlie therefore the Christian faith of the vast majority of Christians of all ages and all nations”.[8] John Mbiti probably the best known African theologian outside of Africa has repeatedly argued that Africa’s “old” religions have been a crucial factor in the rapid spread of Christianity among African peoples.[9] They were a vital preparation for the Gospel.

This argument stands the western missionary view of African religions on its head and so opens the way for a fresh approach to how we may understand the relation of Jesus as Lord and Saviour to the spiritual realities of our context.

[1] John V. Taylor, The Primal Vision – Christian presence amid African Religion, London: SCM Press, 1963, p.16.

[2] John V. Taylor, The Growth of the Church on Buganda – an attempt at understanding, London: SCM Press, 1958.

[3] See Acts 15 and also Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

[4] See, among others, E. Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare- God in Yoruba Belief, London: Longmans, 1962; J.S. Mbiti, Concepts of God in Africa, London: SPCK, 1970; G.M. Setiloane, The Image of God among Sotho-Tswana, Rotterdam: A.A. Balkema, 1976.

[5] W.H.T Gairdner, Edinburgh 1910. An Account and Interpretation of the World Missionary Conference, London: Oliphant, Anderson and Ferrier, 1910, p.139.

[6] A. F. Walls, “Africa and Christian Identity” in Mission Focus, vol. IV, no.7, Nov. 1978, pp.11-13.

[7] H.W. Turner, “ The Primal Religions of the World and their Study” in Victor C. Hayes (ed), Australian Essays in World Religions, Australian Society for the Study of Religions, Bedford Park: South Australia, 1977, p.37.

[8] A.T. Walls, “African and Christian Identity”, p.11.

[9] See John S. Mbiti, “The Encounter between Christianity and African Religion” in Temenos, 12 Helsinki, 1976, pp.125 – 135.

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Copyright © Kwame Bediako 1990, reprinted 1992, 1998
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