University of Oxford

A Preview of Theology in Africa

Prior to the turn of the twentieth century, several commentators have opined that Christianity is growing rapidly in Africa as opposed to other parts of the world. This comment is likely to result; in disastrous consequences for the spread of the Gospel. Yemi Ladipo1 has however observed that this reputation is not something African Christian thinkers are always comfortable with, for the following reasons: (1).This worldwide reputation makes the African church complacent. (2) This phenomenal growth of the African church is often used as a valid reason for the continuing dependence on foreign funds and personnel. (3). The image the world had had on the African Church is that of a fat baby, growing fatter everyday but never growing up.

Suffice it to say that the aforementioned argument has long been a characteristic feature of African Christianity. The basic reasons were that African theologians have not been able to develop creative ways of doing biblical theology in a manner suitable to the African context. It is against this background that I have set out to develop a guide to doing biblical theology in Africa.

This presentation has been fragmented into four major series. (1) A Preview of Theology in Africa. (2) Sources of Theology in Africa. (3) Trends of Theology in Africa. (4) A guide to doing Biblical Theology in Africa.

In approaching the surmountable task of addressing the praxis of biblical theology in Africa, it will be fitting to begin by previewing theology in order to be able to determine a reasonable definition and delimitation of the field of theology.

A. Definition of Theology

As it stands today, the term “Theology” is technically older than Christianity. Before Christianity came into existence, works of great Greek Poets like Homer and Hesiod containing stories about gods were categorised as “Theologia’.2 Following these poets, stoic writers also spoke of mystical theology and Aristotle has also deliberated upon theological philosophy in his rhetorical dialogue.

Alister E. M cGrath’s definition of theology makes interesting reading. He said that the word ‘theology’ is easily broken down into two Greek words: theos (God) and logos (word).3 From this etymology, theology is a discourse about God or gods. Thus, it can be seen from above that this definition is too general and therefore too problematic and cannot possibly refer to one particular religious tradition. Besides, Christianity came into existence in a polytheistic world, where belief in the existence of many gods was common place. McGrath observed further that given the above problem a greater part of the task of the earliest Christian writers appears to have been to distinguish the Christian

God from other gods in the religious market place. The doctrine of the Trinity appears to have been in part, a response to the pressure to identify the God that Christian theologians were speaking about.4

Another problem associated with the concept entrenched in the meaning of theology is the inadequate attempt by fallible man to describe (let alone understand) the infallible God. Professor John Parrat 5 in highlighting this misnomer observed that conservative scholars have always insisted that theology is a systematic description of god as He really is in His true nature revealed through his word. However, as Parratt puts it, we do not wish to minimize revelation as an important activity of God. We think theology is not so much a logical description of God, but man’s unending attempt to describe God as He is revealed in natural and special revelation.

Through the centuries the concept of theology has developed beyond simply a systematic analysis of the nature, purposes and the activity of God. This was necessitated by the development of the University of Paris in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Under the influence Parisian writers such as Peter Abelard and Gilbert dela Porree, the Latin Word “theologia” came to mean “the discipline of sacred learning” embracing the totality of Christian doctrine, not merely the doctrine of God.6

In this article, I have restricted the term theology to refer to ‘Christian Theology’. Hence, Christian Theology refers to that line of study that undertakes to set out the teachings of the Christian religion in a systematic order. It includes an orignised exposition of the main doctrines of Christianity.7 The church in Africa needs a systematic understanding of its faith to be able to build a corresponding moral and practical expression suited for the African context.

B. Ecclesiastical Forms of Traditional Christian Theology

From the time of the early church fathers, the church has always sought statements that contain graphic descriptions of the faith it professes. These statements were made in response to the rapid developments of heresies that challenged and threatened the very existence of the Christian faith. The first of such statements to gain entrance into Christian theology was the Apostle’s Creed. This was developed around the third century in response to attacks levied on the doctrine of the Trinity by pagan scholars. Bruce Milne subscribing to the idea that these were summaries of Christian truth produced in the early centuries to state the essence of the faith in a time of theological confusion, added:

The Apostle’s Creed is the oldest and best known and therefore has a strong claim to authority. It certainly produced a useful series of pegs on which to hang expositions of the Christian faith, but it will not serve as the final source and standard of Christian truth.

Firstly, it is too general. It has value in checking extreme viewpoints, but does not provide a full enough statement of the doctrines in question. Secondly, its claim to authority rests on something earlier and more primitive, the teaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles.8

The period of Reformation and post reformation also saw the development of confessional statements of faith. Of primordial importance were the 39 articles of 1571 and the Westminster Confession of 1647.9 These statements were much fuller than the creeds but they too could not stand out as final authorities for the following: First, they are statements reflecting views of one branch of the universal church, and therefore contain elements which could not command the support of other branches. Further, they too are secondary statements. A cursory glance shows that they consciously justify their assertions by appeal to biblical teaching.

The controversies surrounding the critical analysis of the creeds of the third century and the confessional statements of the 16th and 17th centuries led to the development of various forms by which the church perceive theology. Osadolor Imasogie10 gives three models by which the church has viewed theology.

(i) Orthodox Theological Model:

This model ignores the reality of the new understanding of human existence in the interpretation and application of scripture. In this sense, the Orthodox theologian exercises firm commitment to the perennial truths of traditional Christianity.11 This will enable the theologian find analogies in nature for these beliefs; use these analogies to provide a systematic understanding of the interconnection of the major mysteries of faith and try to relate that analogous understanding to the final end of man.

(ii) Liberal Theological Model:

Unlike the Orthodox theologians, the liberal theologian takes modern man’s claim to a new self understanding. In fact, he takes it too seriously and in consequence is committed without reservation to modern man’s values and his stipulation that outside empirico-rational investigation there is no meaningful statement. At the same time the liberal theologian wants to remain committed to the basic Christian truths and to commend them to modern man.

(iii) Revisionist Theological Model:

The revisionist theologian presupposes a transcendental mode of reflection seen as the only viable comprehensive mode of reflection that can be the medium by means of which the common experience of man and its basic religious dimension are analysed in the light of God’s revelation. The revisionist makes provision for man’s understanding but critically examines them.

C. Philosophy of African Religion

It is quite a difficult task to state the philosophy of a religious group that has not developed a literacy culture in which tradition is preserved. African Traditional Religion is conspicuously noted for not having any literature from which scholars can easily refer to in their quest for the construction of an African Philosophy of religion. In Ralph A. Hustin’s comments, he reasoned in collaboration with Africanist scholars that Africans possess the functional equivalent of written historical records in their highly developed oral traditions. He went on to note that for the recording of events with broad public significance, African communities often relied on specialists bands who made use of various poetic and musical devices to formalize their accounts of the past.12

Consequent upon the above, the philosophy of African Traditional religions entails a description of concepts regarding the Supreme Being, the Spirits and the ancestors.

(i) The Supreme Being:

Professor Harry Sawyer begins his explicit work titled ‘God: Ancestor or Creator’ by stating that most of the works on African religious thought-forms start on the assumption that the African is an animist; that is he believes that inanimate objects like trees and stones have each its own spirit which he worships.13 As Sawyer indicated later in the text, the Supreme Being has not left Himself without a witness, as such Africans were conscious of his existence and therefore sought him in all the four major periods of life, namely birth, initiation, marriage and death. African knowledge of God is expressed in proverbs, short statements, songs, prayers, names, myths, stories and religious ceremonies. All these are easy to remember and pass on to other people, since there is no sacred writings in traditional societies.14 Africans also perceive the Supreme Being as the creator of all things. He is eternal, self-sustaining and omniscient who cannot be approached directly. For Africans to therefore approach him, they need to go through the many divinities and spirits in the spiritual realm.

(ii) Man:

At the center of African ontology is the concept that man is at the center of every existence – anthropocentric. Every thing in the society is seen as revolving around man. Man is born in a community where he is expected to be integrated. He is part of the community where he must be ready to share his material possession without condition. It is expected that in such a community such a person must surrender every form of individualism to that kinship. John Mbiti has this to say:

The deep sense of kinship, with all it implies has been one of the strongest forces in traditional life. In such a setting the individual only says ‘I am, because we are; and since we are therefore I am’. In traditional life, the individual does not and cannot exist alone except corporately. He is simply a part of the whole.15

(iii) Ancestors:

The ancestors form another strategic concept in the philosophy of African religion. Richard J. Gehman observes that among many African peoples the vast majority of known spirits are ancestral spirits, that is, the ghost of the dead whether they are the recent dead (living dead) or long dead (spirits).16

Kofi Asare Opoku noted that the reality of their existence constitutes one of the most important features of West African Traditional Religions. They are always revered and held in high esteem. In fact, after God who is the final authority in all maters, the one who is pre-eminent in all things, the ancestors come next in importance. All other spiritual beings may be spoken ill of or even ridiculed on occasion, but God and the ancestors are always held in awe.

Furthermore, the ancestors are believed to show their power through the welfare or misfortune of their family, in sending children and blessing the crops. They are often associated with God in prayer, and as a chief is approached through an intermediary so prayer is said to ascend faster to God through the ancestors and other divinities/spirits with similar powers.17

In summary, We have noted in this article that theology (restricted to Christian theology) refers to that line of study which undertakes to set out in a systematic order the teachings of Christianity. Further, we have also examined the three views (orthodox, liberal and revisionist) by which ecclesiastical forms of traditional theology have been expressed. Lastly, we have outlined views about the Supreme Being, man and the ancestors as key concepts in the philosophy of African religions. Due to lack of a culture of literacy, this philosophy is articulated in oral tradition.


1New Dictionary of Theology. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981) S.V. Theology by D.F. Wright.

2Alister E. McGrath. Christian Theology: An Introduction. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994) p. 117.

3Ibid pp. 117-118

4John Parratt. A Guide to Doing Theology. (London: SPCK, 1996) p. 35

5McGrath, p 118.

6Dr. L.A. Foullah, lecture notes on ‘TH 211 Christian Theology I’ SLBC, 1994.

7Bruce Milne. Know the Truth. (Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982) p 16


9Osadolor Imasogie. Guidelines for Christian Theology in Africa. (Ghana: African Christian Press, 1983) pp. 25-45

10Ibid, p 31

11International Encyclopedia of Communications. Vol I. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) S.V. Precolonial Africa by Ralph A. Austin

12Harry Sawyer. God: Ancestor or Creator. (London: Longman Group Ltd., 1970), P. 1

13John S. Mbiti. African Religions and Philosophy. (London: Heinemann, 1969), p. 29

14Ibid, pp 108-109

15Richard J. Gehman. African Traditional Religion in Biblical Perspective. (Kenya, Kijabe: Kesho Publications, 1989), p 139

16Kofi Asare Opoku. West African Traditional Religion. (Singapore: FEP, 1978) p. 36

17Gepffery Parrinder. Africa’s Three Religions. (London: Sheldon Press, 1969) p 69.

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