“The contention of this work is that Christian theology should encourage taking on the positive elements of the African traditions and positioning these elements in dialogue with the teaching of the scriptures.”
In his book, Christian Theology & African Traditions, Matthew Michael seeks to transform the African mind and its worldview and traditions to be consistent with classical teachings of theology in light of biblical revelation – General and Special Revelation, Scriptures, God, Angels, Spirits, and Demons, Anthropology, Christology, Soteriology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology.
His methodology is to first introduce each topic, sometimes giving an explanation of the various Christian views on it. He explains the topic in the African context. Michael gives a concise survey of the Biblical teaching on the topic. Michael concludes with his suggestions for how the church can help Africans gain a more thorough-going biblical view of the topic while not giving up African traditions and ways of living that do not go against Scripture. In other words the African Christian should be defined as Christian first with ‘African’ being his unique description.
I’ll share just two examples of how the dialogue might go between the Bible, classical teaching, and African Christians:
- Understanding “personhood” is important because ultimately “theology is the quest to discover, find and realize the authentic human life which was originally given by God, but was lost through the fall.” In Africa, “personhood” is acquired; it is not seen as something that comes automatically because one is a member of the human race. In Africa the community defines the person. The church can help the African Christian to see that in the Bible God created persons. God seeks a community of persons to be His church that is not based on color, creeds, gender, or economic status. This community is made of persons who are free to live authentic lives as they are transformed into the image of Christ. Jesus enables us to transcend the effects of the fall which was “the beginning of the obsessive quest by the human powers and communities which everyday seek to deny the worth, value and dignity of the human persons.” This understanding of how the African perceives personhood is very important to avoid misunderstandings.
This topic is also important because it fits in with our discussion on apartheid. Blacks were considered as ‘less than human’ by whites. In the United States other groups were also de-personalized – The Irish were stereotyped as barbarians (note the depiction at the right showing both a black man and an Irishman as down on the evolutionary scale with apes); many Chinese were cruelly used to build the railroads. The beautiful Cherokee people were pushed around like cattle. Today Hispanics are taken advantage of on corporate farms. Jews were depersonalized by the Nazi regime. I wonder if “depersonalization” is a rationalization used by groups that want to exploit or abuse other groups?
- In Africa there is a reawakening of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism has become a large movement because of the ineffectiveness of the European churches which have little emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism is better positioned to address the African worldview because Africans have held onto strong views of the spirit world. Africans have always divided the spirits into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ spirits. The task for the church is to make sure the African Christians do not confuse the Holy Spirit with one of the ‘good’ spirits.
“To overcome this problem (that African Christians have not crossed over from the traditional African worldview concerning the spirit world to the worldview of the Holy Spirit in the Christian Bible) the African church must seek appropriate ways to form or forge a ‘mental bridge’ of continuity which seeks to help these Christians make the transition from their past to the present. By such transition, the African Christian will live in the restrains of the biblical worldview rather than on the liberality of his traditional understanding of the spirit world.”This ‘mental bridge’ could be used in all other areas of theology as well.
This chapter is a particularly good example of how Michael handles the discourse among the classical position, the African tradition, and the Scriptures. There are many facets to a discussion on the Holy Spirit including His true deity, work in the Christian’s life, and spiritual gifts. In just two pages (192, 193) Michael backs up his teaching on the Holy Spirit with over 100 Scripture references. This is an impressive part of his methodology that leads to an analysis with suggestions for how to help the African Christian gain a biblical worldview.
A dialogue between “the traditions of the Bible and the African traditions it will result in a new identity for the African Christian that is biblically founded, but distinctly African.”
Christ died for people all over the world. Our unity is in the simple gospel. How wonderful that God created one human race with many diverse tribes. Rather than making our differences points of contention and using them as ways to distinguish ourselves as “superior” and “inferior”, we should be enjoying the discovery of how interesting our differences are. The world is more exciting because we can learn from each other. Michael’s book gives us a good template for a dialogue that could actually be used with any culture. The only thing I might add is that it is important for us Westerners to learn from the Africans as well. I am also concerned that while the Bible is the priority, it seems like Western ‘classical’ theology is next important. Are we forgetting that our theology came from Africa in the first place? (See Thomas C. Oden. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity ).
 Matthew Michael. Christian Theology & African Traditions (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2013). 224.
 Ibid. 127.
 Ibid. 124.
 Ibid. 198.
 Ibid. 224.
 Ibid. 76.
 Ibid. 76.
 Ibid. 26