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Importance Of Contextual Theology In And Of Africa

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Religion
Wordcount: 4458 words Published: 28th Apr 2017

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The subject of contextual theology in Africa is of current interest as it flows into the contextual theology of Africa in the wider world through its links with, and affect on the growth of, Pentecostalism within and beyond its borders, due to globalisation. As both of these areas of contextual theology in Africa and of Africa have their positive and negative aspects, I wish to ask the question, “What lessons can we learn from understanding the impact of setting and the history of contextual theology in and of Africa which can guide other establishing theological contexts, particularly of the Emergent Church and LGBTQI contexts, regardless of geographical location.

The enormity of the subject requires that the scope of this essay be limited to consideration of Christology only, and in that I will particularly consider the work of Kwame Bediako (Bediako 2004), and compare other models of contextual theology (Bevans & Schreiter 2002).

The debates in Christology, its historical emergence in the early the church and in the African contexts, help us again recognise the implications for ministry to mind and body with fresh understanding of Christ as God and as Man, and how these various aspects relate to our praxis and theological method. This is no less important for understanding the dialogue with Islam as it is for understanding the impact on the historical divide between modern emerging contexts in Western and Non-Western cultures (other than Africa). I will also consider the positive benefits of globalisation and its positive effects on transmission of content and the sharing of method to the possible benefit of the whole church, made possible through dialogues with non-traditional settings and approaches that are emerging using the grass roots approach advocated in African contexts. In this I will consider some alternative modern Christology’s from the LGBTQI context and draw some comparisons. I hope to suggest an embryonic model for contextual theology which I shall call the Incarnational Model of Contextual Theology.

African Christology on the cusp

Globalisation Past and Present.

Global impacts through empires whether they are Persian, Roman, or Colonial are outdone in speed and reach by the modern means of communications and travel, yet there remains many places that are still not enriched, and remain disconnected and controlled and limited by the theological context they have both inherited and developed. This is possibly because in poorer areas there are still the problems of translation and transmission, as well as exposure to other views, which are not facilitated or enabled by situational and resource poverty. In this, the grass roots are still dependant on a third party bringing them the corpus of knowledge; in that respect, they have in some ways simply exchanged their overlords without changing their situation. This means that they still lack independence. Thus, the positive benefits of globalisation remain to be fully exploited and could provide an appropriate vehicle for transmitting the lessons of contextual theology in and of Africa to other geographical regions and into non-academic grass-roots settings beyond its normal reaches, as well as allowing these areas to have free unhindered exchange with other groups. Without this, the theology in and of Africa will become in-bred and undeveloped.

Comparison between Western and Southern Contexts of Christianity

‎Lothar Schreiner defines Contextual Theology as:

Contextual theology is theology predicated with reference to its context. Contextuality, then, means relation to the substance and nature of the context, which goes beyond merely the literary setting to include geographic, linguistic, social, political, cultural, and ideological factors. Contextual theology is faith-knowledge on the basis of both the biblical revelation and the contemporary reference. (Schreiner, in (Fahlbusch et al. 1999)

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In considering Christology in the Western and Southern contexts, represented by Northern European and North American contexts on one hand, and the African contexts on the other, there is a distinction which Tennent refers to as “Theology from Below” in Africa which integrates the work and person of Christ with the human situation and experience, compared to the more philosophical “upper-side” theology of the early church which has continued in the Western tradition. (Tennent 2007) However, Tennent does not give consideration to the current evangelical modernist approach to theology it adopted in engaging with post-Enlightenment challenges, which has an effect on openness to considering alternative methods in the first instance, let alone the conclusions one can draw from these methods. This has an effect on dialogue within the African contexts, especially where there are still some remnants of colonial influence, but more so in transitioning to a contextual theology of Africa in the African Diaspora, the uncritical adoption of modern evangelicalism would stifle dialogue and raise contention in both academic and grass-roots settings of Western Theology. This is as important for inter-faith dialogue as it is for inter-contextual dialogue. (Musk 2008)

‎George Evers alludes to the recognition that African context exists in reality as a plurality of contexts, and notes that there is a desire for independent African theology, despite its theological roots in Christian History represented by the great North African theologians of antiquity, Tertullian, Cyrian and Augustine. (Evers in Fahlbusch et al. 1999)

Bediako parallels the methods of early Hellenistic writers within the church, and how they approached the enculturation of the gospel within a peri-Christian Graeco-Roman context, with that of the modern approaches of African Christology’s dealing with both their own pre-Christian past, as well as their adoptive history imported by colonial missionaries. In this he illustrates for example the use of Hellenistic terms such as logos and the transition to the use of kyrios in the early church and compares this to grass roots references to Christ as Ancestor (among others) anticipating a transition in time to other terminologies. (Bediako 2004, p.63) Tennent points to the work of Jaroslav Pelikan who shows that each epoch of the church has had a prominent image of Christ, which collectively builds our modern day Christology. Thus, he lists a Jewish Messiah, a Gentile Lord Jesus, a post-Constantinian King of Kings, the Universal Man of the renaissance, a war-time Prince of Peace, and modern day liberator. Tennent rightly points out that these historical reflections can not dictate a moratorium on future Christology’s (Tennent 2007, p.110). It is vital that we recognise that every context has the right to not just write in the margins of the depositum fidei, but must write in the corpus, adding their parts of the Christological puzzle. This is true for African contexts, as it is for any other, including the emerging and LGBTQI contexts. “Therefore, the task of integrating Christian faith with authentic African identity becomes a central theme in the emergence of African Christology.” (Tennent 2007, p.115) In throwing off the Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy 1990, p.59) African contexts offer an authentic and hopefully empathetic voice to emerging and alternative contexts held captive by the chains of others. But the message and methods need to spread beyond its borders, and out of its centres of academia to be of immediate benefit both locally and globally.

Who do People say I am?

Various pre-Christian references to Christ that have arisen from African Traditional Religions are explored by Bediako, as well as by Stinton, who also provides useful survey data for her conclusions (Stinton 2004, p.47) and by Tennent (Tennent 2007, p.105). Between them, they highlight several images of Christ that arise from the grassroots African Christology’s listed below:

Table 1: Images of Christ in African Christology

Master of Initiation



Loved one



Lord of the Spirits

Host and Giver of Hospitality

Christ as Ancestor is particularly well expounded by Bediako (Bediako 2004, p.25) and Tennent (Tennent 2007, p.122) and provides an interesting point of contention which ultimately demonstrates the pan-cultural relevance of Christ, as well as the immutability of His work, playing to the holistic approach of African Christology which integrates the person and work of Christ. Bediako struggles to link this to Western/Hellenistic parallel, and overlooks the concept of elder brother [a parallel concept within Ancestor] which can be found in the titles of Christ in Greek/Hellenistic thought, such as firstborn (Gk. Prototokos [1] ) which does not refer to first-to-be-born but rather the pre-eminent heir, or else only-begotten (Gk. Monogenes [2] ) that is the unique-one, especially when prefigured as Wisdom. Both these Western/Hellenistic images of Christ provide parallels of unique source, and therefore ultimate ancestor. There is also a clear parallel to ancestor as mediator and Christ as mediator par excellence.

Similarly, in Christ as Healer, there is a potential over-lap of experience between African and LGBTQI contexts in their shared experience of HIV/AIDS. In my own experience, working as a trainer in healthcare in Transkei, East Cape, RSA among the Xhosa people of Masameni, we worked with Church leaders, tribal leaders, and local practitioners of African Traditional Religions (ATR) who carried out ritual-circumcision, and local healthcare volunteers. We were able to get them to adopt the use of a disposable scalpel and suggested this was a commemorative gift to the individual to mark their rite of passage. These scalpels were made available via local health partners free of charge. In this approach we were able to guard against transmission of infection while honouring their traditional religion. Alas, this message has not penetrated the wider community. (Meel 2005) Nonetheless, in the group we worked with, the notion of Christ the healer working through the body of Christ, his people, was embraced as a wonderful image and inspiration, which even the practitioners of ATR were able to support. In his essay, “Ezekiel understands AIDS; AIDS understands Ezekiel” LGBTQI writer Jim Mitulski speaks of his own journey with HIV/AIDS and parallel’s Ezekiel vision of the valley of dry bones with Christ’s unifying role in creation. (Mitulski in Goss & M. West 2000a, p.155) For him, and for the people in the African continent living with HIV/AIDS, understanding Christ as healer and consummator & unifier of faith enables difficult journeys through sickness, and perhaps towards death, to be based on a solid foundation of faith in Christ. There is no sophistry in this journey. There is no sugar coating. Nonetheless, Christ is central to the journey both as a fellow pilgrim and also as the object of pilgrimage. But, even when the bodies are dead and buried, there is a role for Christ unifying the body again from dry bones. This parallel’s Christology’s of Christ in African where Christ is Lord of the Spirit’s and/or Christ as Chief.

Applied Contextualisation

Relocating Christological themes again in and from the African context relies on careful contextualisation. Various theologians have used disparate methods and approaches. Both Sanneh & Bediako place heavy emphasis on the use of African languages; this places them at one extreme of those who support the translational model of contextual theology. If humanity is the receptor of language as they contend, then culture should be both dictionary and thesaurus. Thus, to extend that metaphor, the Christological puzzle must be a polyglottal interlinear.

What both writers go on to show is that the importance lies not just in linguistic equivalence, but in a cross-mapping of cultural domains of thought. Sanneh’s vernacular is balanced by Bediako’s use of grassroots images such as Christ as Ancestor and Christ as Healer, with the latter author drawing close to an anthropological method. While Bediako insists that “we ought to speak positively of oral, spontaneous, implicit or grass roots theology, as theology which comes from where the faith lives, in life-situation of the community of faith,” he stops short of an anthropological model by stressing that alternative religions are not the source and do not shape Christian affirmations. (Bediako 2004, p.17) Yet, in this quotation I see great resonance with the approaches with LQBTQI communities to do likewise – and allow the theology and Christology to “come from where faith lives.”

The translational model presupposes a supra-contextual unchanging message, while a purely anthropological model uses the personal and communal encounter as its starting point, and in method, allows the grass-roots to self define. On this matter, Donovan here makes a clear distinction between the gospel as revelation and the communal response to this revelation as religion, and thus recognises the immutability of the gospel as well as stressing the importance of seeking the authentic commonality from within the context in all its richness. This parallels the “who do you say I am” approach from within LGBTQI contexts. (Bohache 2008) and would not differ much from other approaches employing “reading against” the scriptures as a hermeneutical tool. (G. O. West & Shomanah 2000, p.250; G. West 1996) I have not found any Christological examples of this within Queer Christology’s, but in essence, the reading-against approach is employed by Koch in employing a non-typical approach to hermeneutics, though it is not applied to Christology. (Stone 2001, p.169)

We should note here that within African contexts there is a potential dichotomy between what is demanded for a context in and of Africa, and that which is granted or permitted by that context to other external contexts. Thus, it is sad to see the African church being so vociferous in the debate about homosexuality; a simple methodological analysis should surely grant other contexts the same privilege as was claimed and rightly demanded by African theologians in their quest for liberation. That is, for the gospel to be authentic, the gospel must operate from within the context. This is a major tenet on which I propose an Incarnational model of contextual theology; that is, Christ’s incarnation was the ultimate step of identification and required a transition into the human context but went beyond that in fully identifying with the marginalised of society in the face of religious opposition. The model therefore, in this respect, imitates that objective.

In principle what I propose is a modified synthetic model, in as far as I recognise the importance of several models; Bediako’s translational approach enables sympathy with Donovan’s anthropological approach. A liberationist approach would possibly go further in allowing the praxis within community to inform our Christology, but I am not aware of any such models emanating from the African context. Nonetheless, I disagree with Newbiggin’s Counter-Cultural model in as far as I disagree with the assumptions behind the use of the gospel. Like Donovan, I see it as immutable, and therefore while I agree with Newbiggins analysis that everything should be subject to the gospel, I disagree that the gospel should be seen as a tool for refutation and rejection of local context. There is no threat from syncretism when you view God and the Gospel as immutable, and when you merely use the notions within other contexts to continue to resolve the Christological puzzle. Bediako, in drawing short of a full anthropological model, sides with Newbiggin in seeing the gospel as a refutation and rejecting tool. However, emerging from modern western contexts are post-evangelicals who are rejecting the modernist method adopted by post-enlightenment Christians as they engaged with opponents of their time. This approach was embedded into the western theology imported into the African context. This modernist approach is still evident in the post-colonial echoes as the remnant of adoptive history present in various contexts in Africa, and as it has survived in Western contexts also, it parallels with the contexts of Africa found in Pentecostalism in the west.

Relationship, Re-appropriation and Redemption

The Jewish atheist Buber has contributed to philosophy with his understanding the I-thou versus I-thee framework. Part of this work expounds the notion of deepening understanding of I-thee relationships (interpersonal, interfaith, inter-group) which comes from a deeper understanding of the I-thou relations (cosmic.) and vice versa (Buber 2004)

One of the global problems the church faces in all contexts is the gap between academic theology and grass roots theology, and a lack of exchange between the two. Not only do different groups exist in silos, but there is a gap between academic and grass roots within silos. Thus, when cross-talk between the silos takes places, it is usually only at the academic level, and does not penetrate to the grass-roots.

The Christological puzzle demands that the gospel be found within all contexts and that each contributes their own piece to the puzzle. However, each silo considers its own received knowledge as universal and normative. Thus we need to learn several lessons in considering Christology’s in and of Africa.

First that the gospel has nothing to fear from experimentation intended to unearth Christ from within the context. All the various models of contextual theology should be permitted. Secondly, we should allow each context to self-define in order to obtain both an authentic and relevant message which also has current rather than historical application. Thirdly, language and poverty are real obstacles to dissembling walls between academic and grass roots theology and are a major contributing factor to the failure in positive effects of globalisation. Despite non-textual approaches in some contexts, there needs to be greater dialogue between the silos including non-traditional groups from outside the normal scope of research, and also greater exchanges within silos between academic and grass-roots. I would include here post-modern and non-traditional groups such as the LGBTQIA groups. The Incarnational model therefore suggests that there should be not only a top-down and bottom up communication within silos, but there has to be communication between silos at all levels that is both practical and pragmatic, but also respectful.


The methods and models employed in various contexts in and of Africa provide a strong methodological foundation for other contexts seeking to discover Christ in their contexts and thus incarnate their spirituality in their setting. There is a lack of intra-contextual and inter-contextual dialogue connecting academia and grass-root settings both in Africa and in Western theologies. I propose that by adopting a post-evangelical approach, which engages with postmodernism, a foundation of empathy with alternative groups and settings would be facilitated. This avoids the certainty trap which inevitably locks groups in a head-to-head confrontational stance as they seek to defend their position rather than discover the truth. Instead, it is possible that the groups align side-by-side on the journey. In this, the Incarnational Model of Contextual Theology post-modernises the Synthetic model with a refining-redeeming gospel to mirror culture rather than refute and reject it. But it finds its deepest meaning in the lives of the groups discovering its depth, and therefore incorporates a deeply spiritual and deeply practical element of praxis. The final aspect of this incarnational model alludes to the need for publishing the outcomes and rooting them in not just the religious practices of various groups, but in their secular lives too. Most importantly is facilitating access to the materials and resources outside of academic circles. Poverty and language will continue to be obstacles to be overcome. While certain contexts are disbarred because the materials are not in an accessible language and while the positive effects of global spread of the message through the internet requires access to that medium, then there will continue to be substantial pockets of every context existing in effective isolation from their academic partners and isolation from other enrichment from other contexts.

(Adeyemo 2006) (Akper 2007)(Ballard & Pritchard 2006) (Bediako 2004)(Bevans & Schreiter 2002)(Chike 2008)(Clarke 2005)(Countryman/Ritley 2001) (Dada 2010)(Donaldson 1996)(Goldingay 1996)(Goss & M. West 2000b)(Jenkins 2009)(Mashau & Frederiks 2008)(Moloney 1987)(Nadar 2007)(Sankey 1994)(Stuart 2003)(Tennent 2007)(Thomson 2006)(Wilson 1995) (Jenkins 2006)(Jenkins 2007)(Stinton 2004)(G. West 1996) (Culley 1976)(Elliott 1986)(Fahlbusch et al. 1999)(Jewett, 1985)(WILLIAM 2004)(Winquist 1987)

Bibliography & Background reading

Adeyemo, T., 2006. Africa Bible Commentary: A One-volume Commentary Written by 70 African Scholars, Zondervan.

Akper, G., 2007. The Person of Jesus Christ in Contemporary African Christological Discourse. Religion & Theology, 14(3/4), pp.224-243.

Ballard, P.H. & Pritchard, J., 2006. Practical Theology in Action, SPCK Publishing.

Bediako, K., 2004. Jesus and the Gospel in Africa: History and Experience, Orbis Books.

Bevans, S. & Schreiter, R.J., 2002. Models of Contextual Theology Revised edition., Orbis Books (USA).

Bohache, T., 2008. Christology from the Margins, SCM Press.

Brown, C., 1986. New international dictionary of New Testament theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

Buber, M., 2004. I and Thou (Continuum Impacts) New Ed., Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.

Chike, C., 2008. PROUDLY AFRICAN, PROUDLY CHRISTIAN: THE ROOTS OF CHRISTOLOGIES IN THE AFRICAN WORLDVIEW. Black Theology: An International Journal, 6(2), pp.221-240.

Clarke, C.R., 2005. Towards a Functional Christology Among AICs in Ghana. Mission Studies: Journal of the International Association for Mission Studies, 22(2), pp.287-318.

Countryman/Ritley, 2001. Gifted by Otherness, Thomas More Press.

Culley, R.C., 1976. Semeia 5, Oral Tradition and Old Testament Studies, Society of Biblical Literature.


Donaldson, L.E., 1996. Semeia 75: Postcolonialism and Scriptural Reading, Society of Biblical Literature.

Elliott, J.H., 1986. Semeia 35: Social-Scientific Criticism of the New Testament and Its Social World, Society of Biblical Literature, Scholars Pr.

Fahlbusch, E. et al., 1999. The Encyclopedia of Christianity: (A-D) v. 1 (Encyclopedia of Christianity, Brill.

Goldingay, J., 1996. Models for Interpretation of Scripture, William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Goss, R.E. & West, M., 2000a. Take Back the Word – A Queer Reading of the Bible, Pilgrim Press.

Jenkins, P., 2006. The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, OUP USA.

Jenkins, P., 2007. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity Revised edition., OUP USA.

Jenkins, P., 2009. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, Lion Publishing plc.

Jewett,, R., 1985. Semeia 30: Christology and Exegesis: New Approaches, Society of Biblical Literature.

Lovejoy, A., 1990. The Great Chain of Being New edition., Harvard University Press.

Mashau, T.D. & Frederiks, M.T., 2008. Coming of Age in African Theology: The Quest for Authentic Theology in African Soil. Exchange, 37(2), pp.109-123.

Meel, B., 2005. Community perception of traditional circumcision in a sub-region of the Transkei, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Available at: http://www.safpj.co.za/index.php/safpj/article/viewArticle/256

[Accessed December 7, 2010].

Moloney, R., 1987. AFRICAN CHRISTOLOGY. Theological Studies, 48(3), pp.505-515.

Musk, B., 2008. The Certainty Trap: Can Christians and Muslims Afford the Luxury of Fundamentalism,


Sankey, P.J., 1994. The church as clan: Critical reflections on African ecclesiology. International Review of Mission, 83(330), p.437.

Spicq, C.E., 1994. Theological lexicon of the New Testament, Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson.

Stinton, D.B., 2004. Jesus of Africa: Voices of Contemporary African Christology, Orbis Books.

Stone, K., 2001. Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible, Pilgrim Press.

Stuart, E., 2003. Gay and Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions and Critical Difference, Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Tennent, T.C., 2007. Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology, Zondervan.

Thomson, A., 2006. Learning from the African Experience: Bediako and Critical Contextualisation. Evangelical Review of Theology, 30(1), pp.31-48.


West, G.O. & Shomanah, M.W.D., 2000. The Bible in Africa: transactions, trajectories, and trends, BRILL.


Wilson, N., 1995. Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible, Harpercollins.

Winquist, C.E., 1987. Semeia 40: Text and Textuality, Scholars Press.


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