Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 96 (November 1996) 3-19


Black and African Theologies in the
New World Order

A Time to Drink from our Own Wells

Tinyiko Sam Maluleke



Africa plunged into the new world order not as a stable continent, but as a region receding into ethnic fragmentation and economic disintegration ... Today Africa finds itself in the ideological wilderness, having flirted with the ideologies of other peoples for the first three decades of the post-colonial era (Mugambi 1995:207)

In this article I probe the unfolding possibilities of Black and African theologies against the foreground of the post cold war era by drawing heavily on the thoughts of African theologians. To my mind, enough has been done already to lay a firm foundation upon which African theologies can build well into the twenty first century. This however, does not mean that our task is to merely distill the best out of generations Black and African theological scholarship. The twenty-first century challenges us to push the boundaries of Black and African theologies by isolating the crucial issues, mapping out the challenges and identifying past and current traps.

Structurally, this article will be as follows: First I shall sample the proposals of two of the most innovative African theological thinkers of our times, Lamin Sanneh and Kwame Bediako. Their views have far-reaching implications for the future of Black and African theologies on the one hand and African Christianity on the other. Secondly I will critically evaluate the thoughts of Sanneh, Bediako and other African theologians whose thinking is close to theirs. In evaluating them, I shall refer specifically, but not exclusively, to the thoughts of Itumeleng Mosala, Simon Maimela, Takatso Mofokeng, Jesse Mugambi and Mercy Oduyoye - all being theologians whose views - like those of Sanneh and Bediako, cannot be ignored in the construction of post cold war African theologies. Finally I will make a few concluding proposals and projections.

A Sample of Two Current Proposals

The advent of the new world order, symbolised by the collapse of the former USSR and its consequences, including the demise of apartheid in South Africa, as well as the imminence of the year 2000 has caused much projective thinking and anxiety among African theologians. [End of page 3]

Already within African Theology, there is growing confidence in speaking of an African Christianity (Mbiti 1986, Bediako 1995) and West African Christianity (Sanneh 1983a). The very conceptualisation of an African brand of Christianity has become a major basis for innovative proposals for a way forward. It means therefore that the fact that it became possible to speak confidently of African Christianity was itself a major shift and an implicit proposal for a different way of doing African theology. It is a long way to move from a position of doubt whether "what we have (in Nigeria) today is in fact Christianity and not ... transplantations from a European cult" (Idowu 1965:1) to Mbiti's statement that "the Christian way of life was in Africa to stay, certainly within the foreseeable future" (1986:229). Whereas African Theology before 1965 was hesitant to assume an African Christianity as its main interlocutor, being preoccupied with the problems of Christianization and (cultural) imperialism, African theologians today have become more confident about African Christianity. Within South Africa, similar confidence in speaking of the Black Church can be noticed since the early eighties. If before 1965, African theologians grappled with the question of how continuous African traditional culture was with Christianity, their confidence in speaking of an African brand of Christianity since the 1980s has thrust the question of how to ensure that Christianity in Africa is truly African to the forefront (cf Bediako 1995: 4).

I have chosen Sanneh and Bediako as illustrations of the proposals for two main reasons. Firstly, I think that they make two of the most brave and far-reaching proposals with significant implications for African theologies. Secondly, the proposals of Sanneh and Bediako mirror the possibilities and obstacles faced by Black and African theologies most starkly.

Sanneh - Translation And Vernacularisation

Weary of the view of mission as imperialist conspiracy and as religious arrogance," Sanneh (1984: 422) proposes an unconventional alternative. In a series of publications since the early eighties, Sanneh has expounded and developed his unconventional alternative with a single-minded, repetitive, passionate and yet scholarly resolve. His alternative consists in the recognition of the translatability of Christianity rather than its alleged conspiracy with imperialism as the main clue in gaining an adequate understanding of its place in history. He argues that Christianity has historically advanced in a dual movement; relativising its Judaistic roots and at the same time destigmatizing Gentile culture (1989:11). Central to this movement is the practice of translation epitomised in the oft-repeated translation of the Scriptures from one language to another. But Sanneh takes translation to mean more than the narrow, technical bounds of textual work" (1989:3). Given the centrality of language in the more integrated and holistic communities of Africa, when missionaries adopted the vernacular it "was tantamount to adopting indigenous cultural criteria for the message, a piece of radical indigenisation," he argues. In the translation process, Sanneh believes that the gospel slips between the fingers of the missionaries into the bosoms of vernacular speakers, as it were. This happens as the missionary translator plunges "into the quicksand of indigenous cultural nuances, and this helplessness may lead the translator to turn matters over to indigenous experts ..." (1989:5). In the translation process therefore, the indigenous experts have the upper hand over the missionary translator. Sanneh proceeds by differentiating between two processes "historical transmis[End of page 4]sion" (the work of missionaries) and "indigenous assimilation" (the work of local receivers) (Sanneh 1983: 166). Of these two processes Sanneh proposes indigenous assimilation to be more significant than historical transmission "for it is within that that the historical process itself becomes meaningful." Therefore to understand African Christianity for example, Sanneh would urge us to give priority to indigenous assimilation, for "in so far as modern Africans have become Christian, they have done so with a Christianity mediated by the West, but in so far as Christianity has successfully penetrated African societies, this is largely because it has been assimilated into local idiom ..." (Sanneh 1993:16). In the pivotal role of Christian translatability and indigenous assimilation Sanneh (1989: 5) finds explanation for the otherwise baffling "momentous outpouring of Christian conversion throughout the continent" which occurred "behind the backs of the imperial masters." An outpouring which, if we may add, is a surprise story since not even the missionary enterprise expected such a "reception of the Christian message among ill-rated Africans" (Bediako 1995:206). So indigenous assimilation has been successful despite the biases and shortcomings of the missionaries. Sanneh dismisses use of the role of missionary shortcomings in a discussion of African Christianity regardless of the quarters from which such use emanates. Not even the evidence of missionaries themselves pointing to collusion between mission and colonialism should be entertained. "We must not allow missionaries to incriminate themselves because what is at stake is the legitimacy of mission as such, not the occasional lapses from it" (Sanneh 1984: 424). Apart from seeking to disconnect Christianity from colonialism, Sanneh actually wishes to demonstrate the crucial role played by missionaries in the Christianisation (not imperial isation) of Africa. There is therefore a sense in which Sanneh's proposal is a spirited apology for both Christian mission and nineteenth century Western missionaries.

Whatever linguistic distortions, compromises, egregarious inventions and other forms of invasive interference missionaries may have introduced, the shift into the vernacular paradigm in the long run, if not immediately, would excite local ambition and fuel national feeling (Sanneh 1993:17).

With this quotation, we approach the other side of Sanneh's proposal. Through the process of vernacularisation, Christian mission actually stimulated and strengthened rather than destroyed local cultures. Sanneh (1984: 422) "would be the last to deny the justice of the case against Western exploitation" but for him, that is a separate issue. Well, is it a separate issue? In this question we come face to face with the full import of Sanneh's proposal and its possible implications for the future of Black and African theologies.

Bediako, whose thought we will consider next, approaches the same subject with an evangelical, scholarly and Africanist perspective, that simply demands our attention. He is influenced by the methodology of scholars such as Sanneh himself and Andrew Walls on the one hand, and the statistic-based Christian optimism of David Barret and Harold Turner on the other.

Bediako - Translation and Africanisation

... for all its massive and unavoidable presence in the African scene, Christianity in Africa continues to carry a burden, a veritable incubus, which it has to come to terms with and, if possible, seek to overcome and lay to rest (Bediako 1995: 4). [End of page 5]

The burden and veritable incubus of which Bediako speaks is the nagging doubt about Christianity's ability to offer a "credible basis and satisfactory intellectual framework for African life" (A) on the one hand, and the problem of "an Africa uncertain of its identity, poised between the impact of the West and the pull of its indigenous tradition," on the other (:5). Unlike Sanneh, Bediako places himself more firmly within the crucible of Africa Christian theology (cf Bediako, 1992). One of his basic points of departure regarding African theology is that "the Christianising of the pre-Christian tradition [of Africa] could be seen as one of the most important achievements of African theology" (A) but, "following the Christian isation of African tradition, African Christianity must achieve an Africanisation of the Christian experience, and this may well prove to be the more demanding task." The Africanisation sought by Bediako should not be confused with the indigenisation of the Christian faith and Gospel into African forms. Such indigenisation, has already been achieved in the African Independent Churches, for example. According to Bediako what is at issue is no longer a religious matter but an intellectual one of "how African Christianity, employing Christian tools, may set about mending the torn fabric of African identity and hopefully point the way to a fuller and unfettered African humanity and personality" (5).

If Sanneh was concerned to demonstrate the independence of Christianity and Christian mission from colonialism and imperialism, Bediako is more concerned with responding to the charge of African intellectuals who say that Christianity can never become an adequate frame of reference for the full expression of African ideals of life. Whereas Sanneh combats a mainly European intellectual problem, Bediako seeks to combat an African intellectual critique of Christianity in Africa at its deepest and most sophisticated level. it is the criticisms of the likes of Edward Blyden, Ali Mazrui, Okot p'Bitek and Vincent Kwabena Damuah on African Christianity that Bediako wishes to take on.

The Bediako Solutions - A Brief Evaluation

Having stated the challenge so eloquently, what solutions does Bediako suggest? We have already alluded to one of Bediako's solutions. The first solution that Bediako proposes is that, not only must authentic African theology seek to strengthen African Christianity beyond the obvious realm of the religious, but African theologians must meet the challenge of Africa's most sophisticated intellectual critique on Christianity. These challenges must be met fairly and squarely in the tradition of the early church fathers' debates with pagan philosophers. Yet it is one thing to advance this proposal but quite another to put it into practice. For example while accepting them as challenges, Bediako repudiates both Blyden and Durnuah rather comfortably (perhaps too comfortably) - at least at the level of ideas. Blyden is chastised for failing to "resolve the question of the status of Christianity in African life" (Bediako 1995:14) recommending instead racial exclusiveness, racial purity, cultural nationalism and the cultivation of African indigenous values. But who said that Blyden either wanted to resolve this question or even thought that it could be resolved? And given Blyden's diagnosis of the problem what was so mistaken about this solution? On Damuah, Bediako surmises that his movement "may have [no more] permanence than other and earlier combative critics and opponents of Christianity" (:36). This is in fact a baffling conclusion since no grounds for it are advanced other than past experiences of the early [End of page 6] church. Has this to do with the fact that Damuah died in 1992 (:15)? The serious shortcoming of Bediako's assessment of both Blyden and Durnuah is the fact that they are treated merely as challenges to African Christianity as if they have no legitimate programmes independent of Christianity. As a result, Bediako chides both for not answering African Christianity's questions - questions which were not theirs in the first place. It is in fact curious that in his chapter on Dumuah's Afrikania movement, Bediako (1995:17-38) refrains from making some estimation of the numbers of adherents in this movement - citing the absence of "reliable figures" (:17) as the reason. Is Afrikania growing? Is it shrinking? Instead we are treated to a mainly doctrinal and philosophical discussion of the views of its founder. Where are its adherents? Who are they and what do they do and say?

A second solution proposed by Bediako, is taken from the thoughts of Sanneh, namely the need for African theologians and Africans in general to reaffirm and embrace their Western missionary heritage, especially its role in education and Scriptural translation (Bediako 1995: 39-74). Through education, the missionary enterprise contributed to the "making of the independent African Christian" (:48), and gave birth to "vernacular Christian scholarship" (:52) as well as the African Independent Churches (:63). Note must be taken of the fact that while many African theologians and intellectuals did in fact assume (and experience) a relationship between Christian mission and colonialism, it is not entirely true to say that this issue, in and of itself, has preoccupied Africans. Nor has this relationship been the chief premise of Black and African theological critique of missionaries. Africans have been more concerned with making the church indigenous than pondering the relationship between African traditional religions and Christianity. In South Africa for example, the most scathing attack on missionaries which drew the crudest connections (of all times) between missionaries and imperialism (Majeke 1952) was written by a European woman (Dorothy Taylor under the pen name of Nozipho Majeke). By contrast, the works of Molema, Jabavu (1928) Mahabane (192?) are neither that scathing on missionaries or preoccupied with the relationship between mission and colonialism per se. Not even Black theology has, to my mind, reached the heights of Majeke in its association of Christian mission(aries) with colonial imperialism.

A third suggestion by Bediako consists in his call for the recognition of the fact that we now live in "the age of Africa's faith and confidence in the Gospel of Jesus Christ" (:85). What then will be the shape of the new African Theology?

... the new African Theology will have to attempt what the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews did: that is, to make room, within an inherited body of tradition, for new ideas, for new realities, which though seemingly entering from outside, come in to fulfil aspirations within the tradition, and then to alter quite significantly the basis of self-understanding within that tradition (:84).

On this basis Bediako (cf 1990, 1995:85f) views Jesus as the supreme ancestor. He considers African traditional religions not only as preparation for the Christian Gospel but as a basic clue to the very reason why Christianity has grown in Africa. However, the view of African culture and traditions as preparation for the Christian Gospel is a veiled refusal to confront the possibility of African traditional religions as independent systems that can be alternative to Christianity. In the same way that Bediako reduces African intellectual critique of the viability of [End of page 7] Christianity in Africa to mere challenges for Christianity, he reduces African culture and African religions to mere preparations for the Christian gospel. This way of evoking and dealing with African culture is not only dishonest but in the end not really contributing to a new and better African Christian theology.

The fourth suggestion is for African theologians and Christians alike to stop regarding the "foreignness of Christianity in Africa [as] a fundamental datum" (Bediako 1995: 115). To arrive at this position, Bediako, following Mbiti (and Sanneh), urges a distinction between Christianity and the Gospel. "We can add nothing to the Gospel, for this is the eternal gift of God; but Christianity is always a beggar seeking food and drink, cover and shelter from the cultures it encounters in its never-ending journeys and wanderings" (Mbiti in Bediako 1995: 117). Closely related to Bediako's call for the assumed foreignness of Christianity to be exorcised as a starting point in discussing Christianity in Africa, is his suggestion that, owing to its translatability, Christianity be viewed, not as a Western religion, but as a non-Western one. The basic problem with Bediako's proposal here is simply that merely to call for people to stop regarding Christianity as foreign is ineffectual. Africans must first cease to experience Christianity as alienating and foreign before they can start discussing Christianity as non-foreign and non-Western. The fact that many African churches, for example, are still Western in polity, theology, doctrine and worship cannot be swept aside by mere enthusiasm for an African brand of Christianity.

The Search for a Pro-Active Premise

The suggestion that Christianity be unhinged from colonialism must be seen as part of the general search among Black and African theologians for a different, more positive and less embittered foundation in the construction of local theologies. Seen from this perspective, Sanneh and Bediako could be merely proposing a mechanism whereby such a positive foundation may be built. While it is inspired, though sometimes unconsciously, by the advent of the new world order, the reasons for the search for a more pro-active basis upon which to do Black and African theologies are probably numerous. Some Black and African theologians are simply tired of doing theology in a fighting mode. War is tiresome. Also, some Black and African theologians are looking for alternative histories for Africans - other than those of oppression, imperialism and dispossession. While oppression and imperialism have been real and ruthless, Africans have at a deeper level negotiated and survived the scourge - by relativising it, resisting it, and modifying it with uncanny creativity. Let us face it, the possibility is real that the West may actually need and enjoy oppositional African theology, more than African theologians themselves, insofar as it keeps the West at the centre of (Third World) theological discourse (cf Maluleke 1995b). But the exploration of alternative histories of Africans is and should be more than just a mechanism for creating a theological turf that displaces the West from the centre, important as that may be. It is a genuinely necessary exercise in the development and flowering of authentic African theologies. While recognising the possibility of positive implications in the calls of Sanneh and Bediako for a view of African Christianity that is not too thickly clouded by the mist of colonialism, the question is whether they do in fact make a compelling and constructive case with their particular proposal. I do not think they do. It is one thing to engage in what I have called the search for alternative histories [End of page 8] of and for the oppressed. It is quite another to seek such histories in order to let the oppressors off the hook, which is what Sanneh effectively does. The relative silence or indifference with which Sanneh seems to have been received amongst African theologians contrasts sharply with the enthusiasm with which his ideas have been welcomed in Europe and America. After all, Sanneh has been advocating his basic thesis variously but repeatedly in numerous publications since the early eighties, so African theologians are not unaware of him.

Already, Sanneh is being used by some White theologians to dig out the often tarnished images of their forbears in order to "heap praises upon their missionary ancestors" (Maluleke 1996c: 105). Will Sanneh's ideas result in the unleashing of a new kind of ancestor worship cult (or its essentially worship of self?) among the Euro-American descendants of nineteenth century missionaries? Is this the best that we can do in response to Sanneh? Only time will give us definitive answers to both questions. Even more revolting is the use of Sanneh's ideas to dismiss indigenous voices who, speaking as actual bearers of the glorified missionaries' heritage and as intellectuals rooted in their contexts, are critical of aspects of that heritage. Such dismissals come across like the argument of a rapist, who upon being confronted by his victim whom he meets many years down the line, not only has to be reminded of his deed (about which he has forgotten), but says in his defence that the woman should appreciate the fact that his rape of her gave her an only son who is now the sole bread winner! In like manner we are being told that despite the shortcomings of the missionaries, despite their racism, their ethnocentrism, despite the genocide of the imperialists, the rape of people and environment, despite all these ambiguities and temporary lapses as they are now called, "... the gospel was still proclaimed" (Van Butselaar 1996: 75). And Africans are supposed to say amen to such proclamation and such a gospel? Are we standing at the dawn of yet another round of Western arrogance in this era? If so, Black and African theologians will have to re-discover and clean up their own wells for they will have little choice but to drink from those.

The argument for the disconnection of Christianity from colonialism, however persuasive it might have been, does not obliterate the experiences of those who were at the receiving end of colonialism. If we should give priority to the ingenuity with which the indigenous experts assimilated the message, why don't we extend such priority to what indigenous people say about their experience of the missionary enterprise? By going to the other extreme, the advocates of translation are in danger of an extreme reductionisrn (which is what they accuse the other side of) - namely, to reduce nineteenth century Christian mission to a pure abstraction which magically stood apart from all that was going on around it, touching ground only to effect glorious vernacularisation. A constructive way forward is not to attempt a denial of imperialist tendencies in the manner in which Christianity was spread in Africa. The search for an unideological Christianity must be abandoned, for Christianity has never been appropriated unideologically. Not only has Christianity been always appropriated in concrete ideological terms, but some ideologies canonised and froze it into a solid and hegemonic orthodoxy. The very fact that we speak of orthodoxy in Christian theology is proof that the translation logic can be arrested - for centuries at least. So translation has not been as magical and successful as it is sometimes made out to be. The way out of this dilemma is to discover and construct different histories, premises, and various responses of [End of page 9] Africans both because of and in spite of the historically close connections between Christianity and colonial imperialism.

Theological Pitfalls in Africa

There is something more basic to Sanneh's logic. He shares this logic in varying intensities with Bediako (1995), Mugambi (1995), Mbiti (1986) and a host of other Black and African theologians. It is the logic of equations and distinctions consisting of a set of such dualisms as; the distinction of Christianity from colonialism, the distinction of the missionary transmission of the message (gospel) from indigenous assimilation of the message, the distinction of the Christian gospel from Christianity and the equation of the Bible with the Word of God. Below and above this logic - at least in the cases of Bediako (1995) and Mbiti (1986) - is an overwhelming optimism about the prospects of Christianity in Africa.

Gospel Versus Christianity

A basic axis around which the ideas of Sanneh and Bediako revolve is the distinction between Christianity and the Gospel - sometimes they even distinguish between the Gospel and the essentials of the Gospel (Mugambi 1995: 100). But Sanneh and Bediako are in the good company of many Black and African theologians here. In their temporary lapses, the missionaries may have distorted and discredited Christianity, but not the Gospel. Indeed Christianity may have been at the service of colonial and cultural imperialists, but not the Gospel. Christianity may have been and was indeed foreign, but not the Gospel. According to Bediako it is the failure to distinguish Christianity from the Gospel that has caused African theologians to be unduly "haunted by the foreignness of Christianity, and having started from that foreignness, [were] never able to arrive at indigeneity" (1995: 116). In the end, Bediako easily solves the problem of the veritable incubus by simply suggesting that it rests on a fallacious premise. Yet, apart from asserting the falsity of the premise, Bediako fails to demonstrate its falsehood. The question is whether the premise is really false in the light of the fact that many Africans continue to experience Christianity as foreign.

The distinction between Christianity and Gospel is a fantastic dualism - a neodocetism which, while it may hold some tranquilizing prospects for a guilt-stricken Christian West, will fail to capture the imagination of Africans. Such abstractionist view of the Gospel is not only contrary to the African spirit but also contrary to the African's experience of missionary Christianity in both its past and present forms. To the extent that Sanneh's theory of gospel translatability is premised on this neodocetism it will fail to persuade Africans.

Bible as Equal to Word of God

The chief axis around which Black and African theologies revolves is the uncritical equation of the Hebrew Scriptures with the Word of God. Sanneh and Bediako illustrate this tendency most starkly. It is on the basis of this equation that translation and vernacularisation acquire such a lofty status in the arguments of both Bediako and Sanneh. What is being translated, according to them, is the very Word of God itself. So that in fact, properly speaking, it is not translation that is taking place; God through his Word, is translating himself, making himself available in the mother tongue of the people and in the process touching both the trans[End of page 10]lator and the assimilator equally. With this view of both the Bible and translation, Bediako (1995: 116-125) seems to be in total agreement. For Mbiti, "nothing can substitute for the Bibl& (1986: 59) it is "the Word of God [giving] the kind of light which is needed in search for meaningful answers" (M). While the new world order and African politics are obviously important for Mugambi, it is from the Bible and on the basis of the Bible that he seeks to construct his theology of reconstruction (1995: 39f). One is not suggesting that these scholars are Biblical fundamentalists. All of them are aware that "the Bible does not contain blue-print answers and solutions to religious questions" (Mbiti 1986: 60) so that African Christians should "choose the Biblical model that is most appropriate for their own needs" (Mugambi 1995: 100) and that the Bible does not constitute "the only subject matter of theology" (Bediako 1992: 398). Yet none of them question the validity of the equation: Bible = Word of God fundamentally.

In one of the most thought-provoking theological books by an African theologian, Mosala (1989: 13) ponders why Black theology, in both North America and South Africa, has so far failed "to become a viable theoretical weapon of struggle in the hands of the exploited masses themselves." Mosala could have been speaking of Black and African theologies as well as various manifestations of African Christianity across the continent. His diagnosis is that by equating the Bible with the Word of God, Black theologians have mistakenly made the Bible both an historical and harmonious book with one message for all people in all situations for all time. Yet in reality, this view of the Bible amounts to an endorsement of the view of the powerful on the Bible. Such a view, is in effect "pro-humanity but anti-Black-working class and anti-Black-women" (Mosala 1989: 19). Mosala is specifically concerned that the equation of the Bible with and to the Word of God implies that it is possible to appropriate the Bible unideologically.

It is actually instructive that the Bible, understood as being equal to the Word of God, has been the most consistently used tool in questioning the validity of both African Christianity and African theology. It is ironic that scholars like Bediako who call for the recognition of African Christianity and the validity of African theologies on the basis of the Bible, fail to recognise and thereby discuss the fact that the Bible has been the most preferred tool in the production of arguments against both African Christianity and African theologies. The failure to problematise the relationship between African theologies and the Bible on the one hand, and the relationship between the Bible and African Christianity on the other is a serious shortcoming in many Black and African theology proposals -Bediako and Sanneh's included. It is especially African theology's reference to African traditional religions and Black theology's reference to socio-political liberation that has caused both of them to be dismissed on the basis of lack of Biblical grounding. It is paradoxical that while Mbiti (1986:59) charges that some theological debates, e.g. South African Black theology, are "propagated without full or clear Biblical grounding" he was himself savagely attacked by Byang Kato for propagating a universalist theology without Biblical grounding! (cf Mbiti 1986:48, Bediako 1992: 386f). Who is right then, Mbiti or Kato and how can we know? Amazingly, beyond seeking to dispute Kato's view of African traditions and his use of the Bible - which Bediako does in a masterly way - both Bediako and Mbiti fail to note the significance of the fact that both Kato and Mbiti were appealing to the same Bible, sometimes the same passages to make divergent points! [End of page 11]

In his discussion of Byang Kato's theology, which he characterises as Bibliology because of Kato's tendency to regard the Bible as the only source of theology, Bediako fails to recognise and confront the hermeneutical problem at the centre of the controversy between Kato and other African theologians. He fails because (a) in his discussion of Kato's theology, it is Kato's view of African traditions and culture which is of primary interest to him and (b) while Bediako (1992:406) observed that due to his inability to recognise the "hermeneutical problem", Kato failed to appreciate "the nuances of the very Scriptures he was so intent on safeguarding" (:404). His basic assessment of Kato was that "Byang Kato's persistent affirmation of the centrality of the Bible for the theological enterprise in the Church in Africa must surely be reckoned to have been his most important contribution ..." (.413). Recognising bibliology as Kato's basic theological problem, Bediako seems to imply that bibliological pitfalls are sufficiently side-stepped by an increment Of the number of sources of theology so that "the Biblical text itself; and the modern context" cease to be the only sources of theology between which "the current flowed only in one direction ..." (:407). However, Bediako merely increases the number of sources of theology without questioning Kato's hegemonic equation of the Bible to the Word of God itself. Nor does he suggest that the new and other sources needed in the doing of theology are equal to the Bible, especially the Bible-as-the-Word-of God. What Bediako achieves ia a diluted bibliology - diluted by the increase of sources - but a bibliology all the same.

I propose that the equation of the Bible with "the Word of God" is not only naive but it is a dangerous form of naivete. Furthermore, I propose that this equation has been and will continue to be more debilitating for Black and African theologies than any of the dangers highlighted by Bediako, Sanneh, and Mugambi (1995) combined. The equation of colonisalism with Christianity if and where it has occurred, has done far less harm to Black and African theologies than the equation of the Bible with the Word of God. The equation of the African past with full blown Christianity if and when it has occurred is nothing compared to the damage that has and will be caused by equating the Bible with the Word of God. So I would put it to Bediako that it is the naive equation of the Bible to the Word of God which constitutes the veritable incubus for African Christianity and African theologies. It is the uncritical equation of human views on the Bible to the Word of God that has been used to legitimate the demonisation of African traditional culture and religions. The demonisers of African culture have not been as inane as to base their attacks on African culture upon their own biases and prejudices. It has never been them, but the Bible that said so! Noting the persistent use of the Bible in support of the oppression of African women within African Christianity, Oduyoye (1995b: 174) writes: "Throughout Af rica, the Bible has been and continues to be absolutised: it is one of our oracles that we consult for instant solutions." The point here is that the Bible is not merely (ab)used in this way, but more significantly, it is (ab)usable in oppressive ways. Black and African theologies must redraft and problematise their relationship with the Bible as well as its place in African Christianity.

Way Out of Biblical Entrapment - Some Suggestions

It is understandable but not acceptable that African Christianity and many African theologians continue to mistake bibliology for theology. It is understandable that [End of page 12] in the context of growing Islam with its unchanging Q'uran and increasing material, cultural and spiritual poverty in the continent, Africans flee to the Bible-is-equal-to-the-Word-of-God formula for anchorage and sanctuary. Such sanctuary also appears to be continuous with Protestant Africa's Sola Scriptura heritage. Herein lies the tragedy of much African Christianity many African theologies and Protestantism in general. We have fixed our identity so much on the Bible-is-equal-to-the-Word-of -God formula that once our faith in this formula is attacked our whole world collapses. Deficient in ritual, theology and tradition, African Christianity, like much of Protestantism is left only with the big black book. Whenever this formula is questioned, it is as if African Christians and their theologians cry out: "Our land and our dignity is gone already, must you take the Bible-as-the-Word-of-God from us as well?"

However, my personal observation of African Christianity and the conduct of African Christians, even those from Pentecostal traditions is that while they may faithfully mouth the Bible-is-equal-to-the-Word-of-God formula, they are actually creatively pragmatic and selective in their use of the Bible so that the Bible may enhance rather than frustrate their life struggles. Yet the same people who contradict the formula would verbally lynch anyone who suggested to them that not everything in the Bible was salvific and therefore there are Biblical texts with which, given our circumstances and history, we cannot collude. What I am saying is that Christians are creatively but surreptitiously undermining the formula anyway. What function does the formula serve then if even those who uphold it do not follow it to the letter?

The insistence on the Bible as the Word of God must be seen for what it is: an ideological manoeuvre whereby ruling-class interests evident in the Bible are converted into a faith that transcends social, political, racial, sexual, and economic divisions (Mosala 1989:18)

Yet social, political, racial, sexual and economic divisions are a reality both in our situation and the Bible itself. Even more significantly, Mosala (in Mazamisa 1995:14) suggests that "the oppressed people in the Bible did not write the Bible. Their struggles came to us via the struggles of the oppressors." The way to proceed therefore is to recognise, openly acknowledge and confront the reality of struggles, conflicts and exploitative divisions in our society as well as,

... the fact that the texts of the Bible, despite being overladen by harmonising perspectives, are problematical - if only because they are products of complex and problematical histories and societies ... as products of, records, and sites of social, historical, cultural, gender, racial! and ideological struggles, they radically and indelibly bear the marks of their origins and history. The ideological aura of the Bible as the Word of God conceals this reality (Mosala 1989: 20).

However, Maimela (1991) has argued that even such materialist reading as proposed by Mosala is still inadequate because it fails to dislodge the "belief that the Bible is normative for Christian theology and can therefore be used as a direct source of theology." This belief and its implications, argues Maimela, is traceable to Black theology's unwillingness "to accept the full consequences of modern historical consciousness" (Maimela 1991: 152) of which it is a product. It is not enough to regard "the Bible as the product, the record, the site, and the weapon of class, cultural, gender, and racial struggles" (Mosala 1989: 193) if "the Bible ... [is still] used as the final court of appeal, as if theological ideas expressed there [End of page 13] [have] a status different from all others" (Maimela 1991: 154). Maimela argues that the "craving for some sure biblical foundation" (:156) within Black theology is a futile exercise for "although reference to the Bible identifies our historical Christian identity, it does not establish the "truth of our theological claims" (Maimela 1991: 157). As a way out of this Biblical entrapment. Maimela suggests that Black theologians should unapologetically base their theology not even on a materialist reading of the Bible, but on "pragmatic or moral arguments" (A 57).

Maimela's charge that behind the materialist readings of Mosala and Mofokeng (1988) there still lurks an unconscious craving for some sure Biblical foundation is plausible albeit debatable. After all Mosala and Mofokeng do not offer us a new Bible, they offer only a new hermeneutic. Seen from this perspective, it is possible for their particular methods of materialist hermeneutics to degenerate into the best if not the only path towards some sure biblical foundation (cf Maluleke 1995b:226). But Maimela's argument has several flaws. While it is true that Black theology is part of the new historical consciousness unleashed since the enlightenment, it is rather unacceptable for a Black theologians to view Black theology merely as a colluding offshoot of modernity. Yet, in this, Maimela reveals, rather unwittingly, some of the modernist trappings in which many liberation theologies have found themselves thus far. The striving to be seen as, and the illusion of considering itself rather u n problematically as, a legitimate rather than an illegitimate child of modernity, has contributed immensely to the inability of Black theology to become a viable theoretical weapon of struggle. Effectively therefore, Maimela substitutes one futile and illusive craving for another. The one craving is for modernistic legitimacy the other is for a "sure Biblical foundation."

Black theology is not just a product of the "new historical consciousness." It is also subversive to that new historical consciousness. Unbroken continuity is not the only way of relating to the "new historical consciousness." It is this assumed uninterrupted, positive, unproblematic and harmonious relation between Black theology and the modern spirit that has caused some Black theologies - at least that of Maimela - to fail to connect meaningfully with the struggles of the poor. Yet, Black Christians are through their varied and rich praxis interrupting, questioning, relativising, moderating and even rejecting modernity - including the "new historical consciousness." Maimela's final solution, which amounts to a rejection of Biblical hermeneutics as an arena of the truth is rather abrupt and unconvincing. Without regard for the fact that the Bible continues to be a "haven of the Black masses" (Mofokeng 1988:40) he simply substitutes "pragmatic or moral arguments" for the Bible. With the Bible continuing to be a haven of the masses, can pragmatic and moral arguments be constructed in a manner that will speak to the masses without having to deal with the Bible in the process of such constructions? I doubt very much. It seems to me that the way out of Biblical entrapment is not to take flight, but to confront, not only the Bible, but all other sources and interlocutors of theological discourse precisely at a hermeneutical level. It is strange that after rejecting monopolistic Biblical supremacy in theology, Maimela does not suggest a multiplicity of equal supremacies, instead he simply asserts another ambiguous and monopolistic supremacy, i.e. pragmatic or moral arguments.

Hollow Triumphalism

The last axis around which the ideas of Bediako (and to some extent Sanneh) and [End of page 14] many other current African theologies revolve is one of basic orientation. It consists of an optimistic and almost triumphalistic outlook of African Christianity and theologies. In this, Mbiti (1986) has led the way. On this point, Mugambi differs slightly from both Bediako and Sanneh. Without being negative, Mugambi is more questioning about the shape and meaning of Christianity in Africa. For Sanneh, Mbiti and especially Bediako, African Christianity is rampant. Not only has Africa produced her own brand of Christianity, but with appropriate reference to her traditional culture, African Christianity has the potential to address such fundamental African issues as polygamy, political dictatorships and the ancestor cult. More importantly African Christianity is now poised to play a constructive role in global Christian theology and global Christianity, for ... "Africa has not produced and is not likely to produce a new Christendom. The Christian ontocracy in Ethiopia has gone, as has the white Christian ontocracy in South Africa" (Bediako 1995:249).

This romantic and triumphalistic view of African Christianity and its alleged potential to bless the whole world may be as naive as the equation of the Bible to the Word of God. In our times, Africa has become a very poor, unstable - a formerly oppressed but now no longer worth oppressing - fourth-world continent. My guess is that the West will be preoccupied with its own programmes and religions well into the next century. Until both African Christianity and her various theologies have listened to the cry of the "slave of slaves" (Oduyoye 1995b:88), who can blame African women for suspecting that "African theology, African God-talk seems [to be] no more than a pretentious smoke screen that dissipates on close examination" (Oduyoye 1995bA 80)? As long as huge blocks of African Christianity display "a refusal to see the hurt of women" (A 84) with the African church behaving like an organization "with female clientele whom it placates with vain promises, half truths, and a promise of redemption (185); does any of us have a right to talk triumphalistically about global or African Christianity?

We should create a framework for discussing African Christianity within which it is still possible and legitimate both to field and pose critical questions directed at African Christianity. Indeed, the very numerical growth in African Christianity should lead us to ask with Mugambi (1995:160) whether "this religiosity [is] authentic, or is it superstition arising from despair?"

... how [can we] explain the apparent contradiction, that contemporary Africa continues to be, perhaps the most religious continent in the world, and yet its peoples remain the most abused of all in history. How could it be that peoples who continue to call on God most reverently are the ones whom God seems to neglect most vehemently? Could it be that irreligion is the key to success, and that religion is the key to backwardness? (Mugambi 1995:33).

An openness to, and acknowledgement of African Christianity is therefore not an excuse to become uncritical and triumphalistic about it. There still are contradictions like the ones pointed out by Mugambi, Mosala and Oduyoye in African Christianity which must be dealt with squarely. Nor should talk of African Christianity become an excuse for us to gloss over the many problems within and between African churches.

Concluding Proposals

From our case study on Bediako and Sanneh we have already extrapolated a few lessons for Black and African theologies. There is a quest for a different and more [End of page 15] positive premise for doing Black and African theologies. This is a quest for various alternative religious histories of African people not only because of, but also in spite of, the religious and colonial imperialism of the West. However, it is still a quest that must continue to be essentially disloyal to the dominant and disempowering approaches to African theologies and African historiographies. This quest is legitimate and must be pursued by Black and African theologies in earnest. But there is a wild goose chase in which Black and African theologies have been involved. It is the search for an unideological Christianity. This is the hankering after a pure Christianity untainted by ideologies and cultures. When people differentiate between the Gospel and Christianity they are craving for this ideology-less Christianity. Such differentiation and such a quest provide a false premise on which we cannot construct a credible theology. It is important to recognise both the existence and importance of a sophisticated and genuine African intellectual critique of (invading) religion. It was partly to this level of critique that South African Black theology was responding. African theologies cannot proceed as if the only real intellectual challenge to Christianity is Western rationalism, Western technocracy and post-modernity. Africans are creatively responding to these in more ways than the Christian one. In her own unique way, Africa is raising fundamental questions - especially on the invading world religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. These religions owe Africa an explanation. Rather than (continue to) exploit and simply assume Africa's hospitality, these religions must argue their case. Why must Africa continue to be host to them given the tremendous problems and ambiguities associated with their presence in Africa, for example? African intellectual critique of Christianity must be seen as more than just a challenge and a test for Christianity. After all Africans do have a vibrant religious life outside of and independent of the so-called major world religions. In other words Africans do have answers to life's most vexing questions which are independent of Christianity or Islam. It is in Africa's ability to provide answers to its inhabitants' most vexing questions that we find a clue to its deepest intellectual critique of Christianity.

Bediako and whole generations of African theologians before him are correct in pointing to the importance of African cultures and African religions. But we must go further. Black and African theologies will have to show more respect for African culture and African traditional religions than to see them merely as preparations for the Christian gospel. While it is true that for those of us who have become Christian, Christianity provides the most valid framework for a full and complete life, we have no right to view everything in African life as waiting for Christianity in order to be fulfilled. This point of view is in fact only a rehash of the views of liberal Western missionaries - Placide Tempels, Vincent Taylor, Henri-Alexandre Junod, Edwin Smith and others. We must do better. Therefore the possibility is not only for Jesus to become the Supreme Ancestor, but he could simply join the ranks of other ancestors who are at the service of the Supreme Being in Africa.

An important interlocutor for Black and African theologies is the phenomenon of African Christianity itself. There are and always will be differences on how best to describe African Christianity - with some even doubting if there ever can be "such an animal as African Christianity" (Oduyoye 1995a:8). Yet, "as we African Christian intellectuals continue to meet to discuss ... African Christians are in the process daily of shaping a Christianity that will be at home in Africa and in which [End of page 16] Africans will be at home" (Oduyoye 1995a:77). It is with this process of Africanisation that Black and African theologies will have to link up. This linking up will have to become more a matter of deeds than pronouncements and intentions. If there is any merit in Bediako's call for a distinction between African Christianity on the one hand, and literature on African Christianity on the other, (Bediako 1996:21 & 1995:264) it is in helping us realise that reading and writing African theologies is neither the first act in theology nor an end in itself. "African Christianity cannot wait for written theology to keep pace with it; it is already rapidly on the march ... [and] academic theology can ... only come afterwards and examine the features retrospectively in order to understand them" (Mbiti 1986:229). There is a sense in which Bediako and Mbiti overstate their case here. Most research endeavours, including the observing of actual African Christianity in action as it were, often culminate in the reduction of what has been observed into literature the paradox involved in writing down oral tradition" (Naude 1995:43). There is and should therefore be at least a two-way critical relationship between literature on African Christianity and actual African Christianity. To a greater or lesser extent the one estimates and needs the other. Whilst African Christianity may generally be said to be marching ahead of theology, there are times when African theology is and should be marching ahead of African Christianity. The two-way relations I am proposing need not be rigidly formal in order to be authentic. We must move away from the popular assumption that the only authentic relationship between theology and communities is one based on the availability of offices and an army of "community liason officers and community organisers" (Moore 1993:25). Indeed, while institutionalised and formalised theological links to the community would offer structure, depth, continuity and other benefits to African theologies, it is also quite costly financially. From the point of view of much of Black Africa this is a severely limiting matter. Therefore, not only should Black and African theologies connect to communities; they will be called upon to devise new methods of connecting to and with grass-root communities in the twenty first century.

In the past the South African theological scene would have connected to any part of the world except Africa. In fact there is an ongoing tendency among all South Africans to speak of South Africa as if it was some place outside of Africa. What we are saying about South African theology can be said of African theologians from other parts of Africa. "They too did not avail themselves of the insights of South African Black theology. Even as late as 1986, the world renowned Kenyan theologian, Mbiti (1986:60) still glibly dismissed South African theology as "little more than a ready made European theology turned into a consumption commodity for Africans." This mutual neglect has greatly impoverished both theologies. The twenty first century will prove to be a period during which South African theology will have to look north of the Limpopo for dialogue and inspiration. Likewise, Africans north of the Limpopo must reciprocate. I am not suggesting a jettisoning of the strong European connections of much of Africa's White Liberal theology. Nor am I suggesting that South African and North American Black theologies cease to speak with "one voice" (cf. Maimela & Hopkins 1989). But I am suggesting a major shift in focus from so called global theology issues to the no less complex and daunting African issues in theology. I think that what Africa will need is the ability to drink from our own wells as it were. Not only is Africa finding itself in an ideological wilderness, she has also become what Amin (1995: 177) [End of page 17] calls the fourth world. On the global money markets, Africa's numerical lead in Christianity is not likely to be of much use. Here, she will have to devise new and alternative strategies for survival. But her religiosity may come in handy there. If we look carefully, we can already see the alternative structures that Africans are inaugurating at the grass-root level. I speak here, not only of the numerous African Independent Churches, but of the stokvels, credit unions, saving societies and other forms of alternative economies. If the poor of Africa are already creating alternative structures to a global economy that excludes them, African theologies and African Christianity in general, must take note.


Amin, Samir. 1995. "A world in Chaos". Voices From the Third World 18:2 (December 1995) 160-182

Bediako, Kwame. 1990. Jesus in African Culture. A Ghanaian Perspective. Accra: Asempa Publishers.

-----. 1992. Theology and Identity. The Impact Of Culture Upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and Modern Africa. Edinburgh: University Press.

-----. 1995. Christianity in Africa. The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion. Edinburgh: University Press.

-----. 1996. "Five theses on the significance of modern African Christianity: A Manifesto". Transformation 13:1 (March 1996) 20-29.

de Gruchy, John W. 1995. Christianity and Democracy. A Theology for a Just world Order. Cape Town: David Philip.

Goba, Bonganjalo. 1988. An agenda for doing Black Theology. Hermeneutics for Social Change. Johannesburg: Skotaville.

-----. 1994. "The role of religion in promoting democratic values in a post Apartheid era". In Religion and the Reconstruction of Civil Society. de Gruchy, John W. & Martin, S. (eds). 1994. Pretoria: University of South Africa. 189-199

Jabavu, D.D.T. 1928. The Segregation Fallacy and Other Papers. A native view of some South African Inter-Racial Problems. Lovedale: Lovedale Press.

Kato, Byang. 1975. Theological Pitfalls in Africa. Kisimu, Kenya Evangelical Publishing House.

Kritzinger, J.N.K. 1988. "Black Theology - Challenge to Mission". (Unpublished Dth thesis) Pretoria: University of South Africa.

Kruger, J.S. 1995. Along the Edges: Religion in South Africa: Bushman, Christian, Buddhist. Pretoria: University of South Africa.

Mahabane, Zaccheus R. 192?. The Good Fight. Selected Speeches of Rev Zaccheus R. Mahabane. Illinois: Northwestern University.

Maimela, Simon. 1991. "Black Theology and the Quest for a God of Liberation". In Theology at the end of Modernity. Essays in honour of Gordon D. Kaufman. Devaney, Sheila Greeve (ed). Philadelphia: Trinity Press. 141-159.

-----. 1995. "Seeking to be Christian in a Patriarchal Society". Journal of Black Theology in South Africa 9:2 (November 1995) 27-42.

----- & Hopkins, Dwight (eds). 1989. We are One Voice. Black Theology in the USA and South Africa. Johannesburg: Skotaville.

Majeke, Nosipho. 1952. The Role of the Missionaries in Conquest. Johannesburg: Society for Young Africa.

Maluleke, Tinyiko S. 1994. "The Proposal for a theology of Reconstruction: a critical appraisal". Missionalia 22:3 (November 1994) 245-258.

-----. 1994b. Review of, Villa-Vicencio, C. 1992. A Theology of Reconstruction. Nation-Building and Human Rights. (Cape Town: David Philip; London: Cambridge University Press). Missionalia. 22:2 (August 1994) 186-188.

-----. 1995a. "Black Theology Lives! - On A Permanent Crisis". Journal of Black Theology in South Africa 9:1 (May 1995) 1-30.

-----. 1995b. "'A Morula Tree Between Two Fields'. The Commentary of Selected Tsonga Writers on Missionary Christianity" (Unpublished D.Th. Thesis. Pretoria: University of South Africa).

-----. 1995c. Review of, de Gruchy, John W. 1995. Christianity and Democracy. A Theology for a Just World Order (Cape Town: David Philip). Missionalia 23:2 (August 1995) 248-249.

-----. 1996a. "Theological Interest in African Independent Churches and other grass-root communities in South Africa." Journal of Black Theology in South Africa. 10:1 (May forthcoming 1996).

-----. 1996b. "African Culture, African intellectuals, and the white academy in South Africa". Religion and Theology 3:1 (1996) 19-42.

-----. 1996c. "God Evolution or the Bushman What Difference does it make? Review article on, Kruger, J.S. 1995. Along the Edges: Religion in South Africa: Bushman, Christian, Buddhist. (Pretoria: University of South Africa)". Journal of Black Theology in South Africa 10:1 (May forthcoming 1996). [End of page 18]

Mazamisa, Welile. 1995. "Re-reading the Bible in the Black Church: Towards a Hermeneutic of Orality and Literacy". Journal of Black Theology in South Africa 9:2 (November 1995) 1-22.

Mbiti, John S. Bible and Theology in African Christianity. Nairobi: Oxford University Press.

Mofokeng, Takatso A. 1988. "Black Christians, the Bible and Liberation". Journal of Black Theology in South Africa 1:2 (May 1988) 34-42.

Moore, Basis. 1993. "Lord, Help Thou Our Unbelief. Black Theology Revisited". Unpublished Paper.

Mosala, ltumeleng J. 1989. Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Motlhabi, M. G. 1994. "African Theology or Black Theology? Toward an Integral African Theology". Journal of Black Theology in South Africa 8:2 (November 1994) 113-114.

Mugambi, J. N. K 1995. From Liberation to Reconstruction. African Christian Theology After the Cold War. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.

Naude, Piet. 1995. The Zionist Christian Church in South Africa. A Case-Study in Oral Theology. New York: Edwin Mellen Press.

Oduyoye, Mercy Amba. 1995a. "Christianity and African Culture". International Review of Mission 84:332/333 (January/April 1995) 77-90.

-----. 1995b. Daughters of Anowa. African Women & Patriarchy. Orbis: Maryknoll.

----- & Kanyoro, Musimbi R. A. (eds). The Will to Arise. Women, Tradition and the Churchin Africa. Maryknoll: Orbis.

Parrat, John. 1995. Reinventing Christianity. African Theology Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Pityana, Nyameko Barney. 1995. "Beyond Transition: The Evolution of Theological Method in South Africa. A Cultural Approach". Ph. D. dissertation. Cape Town: University of Cape Town.

Sanneh, Lamin. 1983a. West African Christianity. The Religious Impact. London: C. Hurst.

-----. 1983b. "The horizontal and the vertical in mission: an African perspective". International Bulletin of Missionary Research 7:4 (October 1983) 165-171.

-----. 1984. "Christian Mission in the Pluralist Milieu: The African Experience". Missiology 12:4 (October 1984) 421-433. (Also Published in: International Review of Mission 84:294 [April 1985] 199-211.)

-----. 1989. Translating the Message. The Missionary Impact on Culture. Orbis: Maryknoll.

-----. 1993. Encountering the West. Christianity and the Global Cultural Process. Maryknoll: Orbis.

-----. 1995. "The Gospel, Language and Culture: The Theological Method in Cultural Analysis". International Review of Mission 84:332/333 (January/April 1995) 47-64.

Setiloane, Gabriel M. 1986. African Theology. An Introduction Johannesburg: Skotaville.

van Butselaar, G. J. 1995. "The Ambiguity of Crosscultural Mission. Swiss Missionaries and Tsonga Christians in the context of South Africa". Missionalia 24:1 (April 1996) 63-77.

Villa-Vicencio, C. 1992. A Theology of Reconstruction. Nation-Building and Human Rights. Cambridge: University Press.


At the time when this article was first published in print, Tinyiko Sam Maluleke ( was a Lecturer in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of South Africa, Pretoria (South Africa). Currently he is Associated Professor at the School of Theology, University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (South Africa).