Peter Leithart on African Christian theology

Leithart argues that African Christians’ freedom from what he calls Western “dualism” offers much to correct white Christians’ theology.  Leithart believes that this dualism was spawned by the Enlightenment, isolating the Bible from other realms of knowledge and therefore delegitimizing it in those realms of knowledge.  Check out the article for his discussion of why Western theology must again be taught by African theologians, as it was when European theology borrowed from Cyprian of Carthage, Augustine of Hippo, and Origen and Athanasius of Alexandria.  It’s quite good, although I would like to ask Leithart a follow-up question: Does his discussion of “African theology” run into the some of the overgeneralization and romanticization/idealization that Westerners often engage in when talking about the peoples and cultures of this immense continent?

In the course of this discussion, Leithart discusses the character of Christian practice developing in Africa: more equal attention paid to the Old and New Testaments; an interest in the wisdom of James, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes; and the identification with the themes of ceremony and sacrifice that the author of Hebrews describes as being fulfilled in Christ.  Like the Christians of the ancient world, “Africans are not the least embarrassed by the world picture of the Bible—a world of angels and demons, of miracles and exorcisms, of the virgin birth and life after death, of heaven and hell. It’s their world. Africans know what idols are because they’ve seen them. They see and hear things in the text that are lost to jaded post-Christian readers in the North.”

The most interesting section described African views of Christ:

For Africans, Jesus is a liberator, a deliverer who delivers His people from real fears and dangers. Jesus is preeminently Christus Victor, not only the Victor on the cross and in His resurrection, but throughout His life. Jesus’ life, and not merely His death, is part of African soteriology, part of their atonement theology. The gospels are not Passion narratives with long introductions, but record the triumph of Jesus, culminating in His death and resurrection.

Africans have no use for the pansy Jesus of modern liberalism. They want a savior with the testosterone to fight for them. No pale Galileans need apply. They sing about Jesus as “the grinding stone/on which we sharpen our cutlasses, before we perform manly deeds.” African hymns and poems describe Jesus as “Man among men,” the “Lion of the grasslands,” the “Fearless One,” the “Chief of all strong men” and “King of the valiant.” Jesus tears the entrails of Satan, pulls the teeth of vipers. Commenting on Christological poems by Afua Kuma, Kwame Bediako of Ghana says the “honorific titles are such as were and are traditionally ascribed to the human sacral ruler. By giving ancestral and royal titles to Jesus, these prayers and praises indicate how deeply Madam Afua Kuma has apprehended the all-pervasive Lordship of Jesus, in the ancestral realm of spirit power, and in the realm of the living community under reigning kings.” For Africans, Jesus’ work is a manly work.

African poems about Jesus are reminiscent of Heiland, the medieval Saxon retelling of the gospels with Jesus as a Germanic warrior. Africans give Jesus royal and honorific titles, much as the early Christians confessed Jesus using the imperial title kurios.

Life in the North is softened by technological redeemers. Threatened with a difficult childbirth, we turn to epidurals and C-sections. Depressed, we take pills. When there’s a break-in, we can dial 911.

Africans have few technical protections, and in the daily threats of life they turn to Jesus. Jesus saves the poor, makes the maize grow in the fields, protects the laboring mother, tears down the barriers that divide men and makes them brothers. For Africans, the salvation Jesus brings is thoroughly “this-worldly,” the healthful kingdom of Jesus breaking into the kingdoms of malevolent powers and dangers. The dualisms of Western Christianity simply do not address the threats that Africans want to be delivered from; dualistic modern Christianity cannot answer African questions. African theology is instinctively, fundamentally anti-dualistic.

Salvation is comprehensive, practical, and has a “world-affirming” force. According to the Annang churches of southeast Nigeria, the God of the mission churches was “remote.” According to the theology of the missionaries, “Man is confronted with evils, and yet He is not interested in their destiny, He does not help. He is only interested in their souls and not in their general and total welfare, bodily and spiritual.” Africans would recognize the truth of Nietzsche’s complaint that modern Christianity is anemic, opposed to life rather than an affirmation of life. They want a Christ who gives life, abundantly.

African conceptions of faith bear out this broad understanding of Jesus’ saving work. “I have faith,” Mbiti says, means “I can bear a child” and “I am healed” and “the troublesome spirits have been driven out or warded off” or “I am protected against magic, witchcraft, sorcery” and “I entrust myself to Jesus Christ.” Faith is courage in the face of murderous persecutors. Faith is never simply assent to doctrine, but a living active stance toward all of life.

A Zulu song summarizes African faith in Scripture and in Jesus: “Satan has no power/ we will clobber him with a verse.”

I recall reading in Lamin Sanneh’s Whose Religion is Christianity? that referring to God in the local African name for God greatly eased conversion.  There is an example in this post.  Leithart also discusses this trend:

One of the central themes of African academic theology has been to give a theological account of traditional African religions. No consensus has emerged, but many Africans regard their traditional religions as a form of preparation for the gospel, much as the church fathers saw Greek culture as a praeparatio evangelii. Africans insist that God did not arrive in Africa when Europeans arrived, and believe that the God of traditional African religion is the God of the Bible, present under a veil throughout Africa’s history. For Bediako, the story of the Bible is literally Africa’s story —the story of God’s creation, of a fall and God’s withdrawal, and eventually of God’s return.

For an example of a view of Greek culture as preparation for the gospel, see Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata, Book I, Chapter 5.

The growth of world Christianity is one of the most exciting phenomena for Christians today.  We don’t know what direction it will take, but we know that God is guiding it for his great purposes.

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5 comments

  1. One downside to global Christianity IMO is the ubiquity of our terrible praise and worship music in a lot of these churches. I hope they grow out of it and come up with something better than “shout to the Lord” in Africa.

  2. Oh man, I didn’t know that had spread as well. That’s too bad, in most cases. It will be interesting to see if the theological developments that Leithart is enthusiastic about are followed with good worship music.

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